Delirium Studies

Art History and its Discontents

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Moonlight Over the Zombie City

Venice is dead, it just doesn’t know it yet. Everyone knows it should have sunk long ago — forced underwater by the sheer weight of millions of middlebrow tourists, vomiting out of gargantuan pleasure ships — a fevered swarm of selfie-snatching locusts, lost in a medieval maze, in search of Chinese-made gimcrack souvenirs and a Disneyfied Old World experience. Venice is dead, a victim of its own easy virtue — its tawdry, promiscuous beauty. And yet it lives on, the quintessential zombie-city, both dead and alive — suspended in time, bathed in the light of an insolent moon.

The Grand Canal, Venice, July 24, 2017, 11:30 PM.

By the early years of the last century, the Venice Biennale had become, according to the American press, “one of the most important artistic events in the world.”1”‘Futurists’ Desire to Destroy Venice,” New York Times, July 24, 1910, p. 16. Then, as now, the Biennale was an important stop for the international art world. In 1910, during the ninth Biennale, a series of events, planned by a band on Milanese avant-gardists, were designed to shock the stodgy old art crowd, and announce their arrival on the scene.  The Biennale had been open for a little over two months when Filippo Marinetti, along with his Italian Futurist comrades, began a series of guerrilla performances. On July 8, Martinetti and company claimed they climbed to the top of the Campanile di San Marco, and tossed 200,000 multicolored mini-manifestos onto the “howling agitation of the enormous crowd” in the famous square below.2 See Scappettone, Jennifer. Killing the Moonlight: Modernism in Venice. New York: Columbia University Press, 2014. Scappettone devotes Chapter 3 to the Italian Futurists’ Venetian efforts of 1910. ¶ But did the event at San Marco actually happen? An article in the New York Times in October, 1910, some six months after the manifesto-tossing, describes the rebuilding of the campanile, after its collapse in 1902, as nearing completion, and anticipating completion by the following St. Mark’s Day, April 25, 1911. In fact, the restoration of the bell-tower was not finished until March, 1912. How, precisely, did Marinetti and company get into the worksite and up to the top? Did they? Does it matter? Could this Futurist origin-story be yet another myth, like so many others, that accrete to this strange place?

Marinetti’s communiqué, 1910.

Some weeks later, an English version of the manifesto would appear in the pages of the New York Times:

We repudiate the ancient Venice extenuated by morbid secular voluptuousness, though we have loved it long and possessed it in the anguish of a great delightful dream.

We repudiate the ancient Venice of strangers, market to fraudulent antiquaries, magnetical pole for all the snobs and imbeciles of the world, the sunk in bed of innumerable caravans of lovers, precious gemed tubs of cosmopolitan adventuresses.

We want to cure and cicatrize this rotting town, magnificent wound of the past. We want to enliven and ennoble the Venetian people declined from its former grandeur, morphinised by a disgusting cowardice and abased by a small dishonest traffic. We want to prepare the birth of a commercial and military Venice, able to brave and affront on the Adriatic Sea our eternal enemy — Austria.

Hasten to fill its small fetid canals with the ruins of its tumbling and leprous palaces.

Burn the gondoles, those swings for fools and erect up to the sky the rigid geometry of large metallic bridges and manufactories with waving hair of smoke, abolish everywhere the languishing curves of old architecture!

May the dazzling reign of divine Electrical Light at last free Venice from her venal fournished room’s moonshine.3”‘Futurists’ Desire to Destroy Venice,” New York Times, July 24, 1910, p. 16. Link to the full article here.

The Futurists continued their assault on Venice, leafletting the halls of the Biennale itself. On August 1, 1910,  Marinetti and company staged an evening performance at the Teatro La Fenice, in which they exhorted the audience to annihilate romanticism, sentimentalism, and nostalgia — enfeeblements which only served to attract an army of foreign dandies to the lagoon, to bask, like cultural vampires, under the licentious light of the Venetian moon. The Futurists had the answer — “Let’s murder the moonlight!,” they cried. The audience, reportedly, rioted.4 Rainey, Lawrence, Poggi, C., Wittman, L., eds. Futurism: an Anthology. New Haven: Yale University Press. 2009. Full text of A Speech to the Venetians, 68-70.

On the ruins of Venice, the Futurists envisioned a modern, masculinized, industrialized, and militarized city. Professor Jennifer Scappettone writes, “At the dawn of the century, Marinetti and his colleagues insist that the moonlight ambience that made the site of the fallen republic darling to foreign Romantics and their languorous progeny, the Decadents and the aesthetes, must be dissolved in favor of a military-industrial complex to serve the lagging nation-state.”5Scappettone, 142.  But this vision of Venice is nothing new at all. The Futurists, like so many others that lay claim to progress and the future, looked back with their own militant nostalgia, conjuring the thousand-year history of La Serenissima — Venice before its decline, when it was indeed a military and industrial power — building warships, ruling the seas, plundering its enemies, and raking in the ducats. Here Marinetti is explicit — he hoped to restore Venice to its “former grandeur.” In other words, he wanted to Make Venezia Great Again.

Marinetti would go on to other obvious avant-garde targets — the Catholic Church, and the Academy. At one point, he called for the abolition of pasta, of all things, because, as art historian Romy Golan writes, “pasta stood behind everything the Futurists had been battling ever since the appearance of their initial manifesto in 1909.” 6See Golan, Romy. “Ingestion/Anti-pasta.” Cabinet, Spring 2003. Available here. Marinetti and the Futurists famously glorified war, calling it “the only hygiene of the world.”7The ninth declaration in Marinetti’s Manifesto of Futurism reads: “We intend to glorify war — the only hygiene of the world — militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of anarchists, beautiful ideas worth dying for, and contempt for woman.” See Rainey, et al. 51. Marinetti would infamously align himself with Benito Mussolini, becoming close to Il Duce, acting as his philosopher and writing Fascist propaganda until the end of his life, which occurred on the shores of Lake Como, from a heart attack, in December, 1944. Marinetti would not live to see Mussolini’s mutilated corpse strung up by its ankles, from the fascia of a gas station canopy, left to the predations of the mob, in the Piazzale Loreto, in Milan, four months later.

In 1930, the Futurists published a cookbook that featured culinary alternatives to despised pasta. One such dish, “Carneplastico,” a giant, cylindrical meatball, served upright, garnished with rings of sausage and crowned with a thick sauce of honey, is illustrated here in what appears to be a very glum Futurist cook-off. Click image for the recipe!

Before he died, Marinetti had one last encounter with Venice. Toward the end of his life, in ill heath, and in the midst of World War II, and the Italian Civil War, he would return to Venice and find himself finally succumbing to city’s beauty. He arrived in October, 1943, with his wife and daughters, and stayed until August, 1944. At the time, Venice was a safe haven, protected from bombing through a secret agreement between the Vatican and the Allies.8Scappettone. 171-72. Venice became the “cultural center” of the Fascist puppet government, and attracted  “refugees, diplomats, new bureaucrats, foreigners, artists, and war profiteers.”9Scappettone. 171. The Jewish citizens of Venice were rounded up, arrested and deported to Germany. Marinetti and his family were assigned a home, Casa Ravá, on the Grand Canal, that had been “requisitioned from Jewish owners.”10Scappettone. 171.

Casa Ravá (center). The Marinetti family home in Venice, on the Grand Canal, from Oct. 1943 to Aug. 1944.

During his stay in Venice, Marinetti would write (or, rather, due to his delicate health, dictate to friends and family) what is considered to be his last major work. Entitled Venezianella e Studentaccio, it was an experimental novel-slash-poem that reads like a fever dream — an unpunctuated, kaleidoscopic, delirious love poem to the lagoon city:

O my sympathetic readers I wish to remind you that the fainting of the Sun envious of the Moon in one of those cities candied in the spices of the past arouses a sibylline hour of vaporous decoctions on a wooded little fire with alembic filters and conspiring penumbras…

Venice reengraves herself wholly by herself in the saffron with reflections desirous to resound up to the tympanums of the clouds

Philharmonic gondolier I row them indolently and care only to cast off the opulent green brocades of the wake that encumbers the long shadows of sumptuous solar reception

–F. T. Marinetti, from Venezianella e Studentaccio11Scappettone. 176.

In Venezianella e Studentaccio, Marinetti imagines a rebuilt Venice, not as a military colossus, as he had in 1910 — but in the form of an inhabitable female colossus made entirely of Murano glass. Venice is no longer the rotting town he derided in his early screed, but a city “candied in the spices of the past.” How does one explain this total voltafaccia? Marinetti provides his own clues — as he limns a scene of a Futurist manifesto-bombing in Venezianella e Studentaccio, he imagines a conversation in the square below: “Who are these Futurists, anyway? They’re people who see the world backwards.”12Scappettone. 188.

Marinetti’s “sweet simultaneity” of Sun and Moon over Venice recalls Turner’s paintings of Venetian light. Here the sun and the moon simultaneously claim their place above the lagoon. Joseph Mallord William Turner (British, 1775 – 1851), Approach to Venice, 1844. National Gallery of Art, 1937.1.110.

Professor Scappettone approaches the problem from several angles. She claims that Marinetti had a lifelong relationship with the city, vacillating “between strategic assaults and reconciliations.”13Scappettone, 162. She argues that this “bizarre mingling of Futurist and passéist impulses in Venezianella e Studentaccio might well be viewed as consonant with a Fascist tendency to bind contradiction as oxymoron.”14Scappettone, 191. Fascism is anti-rational, and so is Venice, therefore Marinetti’s late work celebrating Venice fits a certain Fascist ethos. Finally, it is Venetianness of Venice that renders it immune to tender mercies of critical dialectic, modernism, and the avant-garde:

Venice does not expire despite the centuries of its surface abjection[…] It persists as a site of influx and efflux that remains steadfastly ‘Venetian,’ forcing incursions into it to change their ways or channels — literally. As such it resists the dyads of future and past implicit in what Adorno called ‘the fatally rectilinear succession of victory and defeat,’ forcing authors to contend, in a vengeful obsolescence, with ‘the waste products and blind spots that have escaped the dialectic.’ Marinetti’s late deployment of unassimilated and anachronistic material should help us to extricate his writing from a unidirectional, monolithic narrative of futurity, and to bridge the history of a never-quite-rejected Symbolism and the aging stylistic disfigurations of the avant-garde.15Scappettone, 225. Quoting Adorno, Theodor. Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life. London: Verso, 2005. 151.

Here, Professor Scappetonne deploys a section of Theodor Adorno’s Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life. Adorno began writing the book in 1944, while in exile in Pacific Palisades, while Marinetti, half a world away, was working on Venezianella e Studentaccio. In Minima Moralia, Adorno reflected on the failures of society, philosophy and reason in the wake of this most recent war’s devastation. In this passage, he considers the limits of dialectical theory and history.  He writes:

If Benjamin said that history had been hitherto written from the standpoint of the victor, and needed to be written from that of the vanquished, we might add that knowledge must indeed represent the fatally rectilinear succession of victory and defeat, but should also address itself to those things which were not embraced by this dynamic, which fell by the wayside – what might be called the waste products and blind spots that have escaped the dialectic. It is the nature of the defeated to appear, in their impotence, irrelevant, eccentric, derisory. What transcends the ruling society is not only the potentiality it develops, but also that which did not fit properly into the laws of  historical movement. Theory must needs deal with cross-grained, opaque, unassimilated material, which as such admittedly has from the start an anachronistic quality, but is not wholly obsolete since it has outwitted the historical dynamic. This can most readily be seen in art.16Adorno, Minima Moralia, Part II, dated 1945. Aphorism 98, London: Verso, 2005. 151.

Dialectical theory forces the history of everything into a state of struggle, creating an engine for historical movement that rewards winners and consigns losers to their appropriate, historical dustbins.  Benjamin upends the historical narrative, to see the story from the vanquished point of view. That, in turn, reveals things that history, theory and “the dialectic,” simply can’t assimilate — the apparently “irrelevant, eccentric and derisory,” and things which have “outwitted the historical dynamic.” It’s absurd, Adorno continues, to apply the dialectic to some things. Our obligation to Benjamin’s legacy is, as Adorno writes, “to think at the same time dialectically and undialectically.”17Adorno, 152. Adorno asks us to do something seemingly impossible — to think in diametrically opposed modes simultaneously.

Venice allows just this — for some, Venice quietly demands it. Like no other city in the world, Venice bears its opposites, not in dialectical struggle, but in what the later, Venetian Marinetti would describe as “sweet simultaneity.” Venice carries its dyads, its contradictions, its paradoxes — future and past, water and stone, fragility and endurance, ersatz and authentic, European and Byzantine, vivacity and decay, corruption and beauty — with a kind of strange grace, outside the reach of theory, reason, modernity, history — the component parts of Adorno’s “dialectic.”

Venice stands outside of time, not anachronistically, but anachronically, bearing its past and its future, along with all its other contradictions, in a most serene, if very crowded, eternal and unhistorical present. Venice is not a place as much as it is a lived experience. To know Venice, you have to be there, and only then it reveals itself. And then, paraphrasing Professor Scappettone above: You don’t change Venice — Venice changes you.

A 1912 edition of Baedeker’s still serves as a useful guide in 2017. The cafés, hotels, churches, museums, canals, bridges, paintings, campi, vaporetti, and palaces are all still where they were a century ago. Time does not stand still in Venice, but everything else does.

Perhaps this explains Marinetti’s change of heart. Perhaps, it was his own corporeal decline and the whispers of his own mortality that caused him to think differently. Perhaps it was his Fascist utopia crumbing around him. Perhaps, as wars within wars raged around him, as he found safety and refuge for himself and his family in Venice, he realized that some fifteen hundred years earlier, the first Venetians set out into the lagoon for the very same reason. Perhaps, as he looked out on the Grand Canal from the windows of his stolen house, he thought about the rightful owners and their fate. Perhaps he started to see history as Benjamin urged — from the perspective of the vanquished. Who knows what finally broke Marinetti’s dialectic — his militantly Manichean worldview? But something did — in his last, kaleidoscopic, contradictory, and paradoxical love poem, he finally saw Venice.

— Michael Westfall

Notes   [ + ]

1. ”‘Futurists’ Desire to Destroy Venice,” New York Times, July 24, 1910, p. 16.
2. See Scappettone, Jennifer. Killing the Moonlight: Modernism in Venice. New York: Columbia University Press, 2014. Scappettone devotes Chapter 3 to the Italian Futurists’ Venetian efforts of 1910. ¶ But did the event at San Marco actually happen? An article in the New York Times in October, 1910, some six months after the manifesto-tossing, describes the rebuilding of the campanile, after its collapse in 1902, as nearing completion, and anticipating completion by the following St. Mark’s Day, April 25, 1911. In fact, the restoration of the bell-tower was not finished until March, 1912. How, precisely, did Marinetti and company get into the worksite and up to the top? Did they? Does it matter? Could this Futurist origin-story be yet another myth, like so many others, that accrete to this strange place?
3. ”‘Futurists’ Desire to Destroy Venice,” New York Times, July 24, 1910, p. 16. Link to the full article here.
4. Rainey, Lawrence, Poggi, C., Wittman, L., eds. Futurism: an Anthology. New Haven: Yale University Press. 2009. Full text of A Speech to the Venetians, 68-70.
5. Scappettone, 142.
6. See Golan, Romy. “Ingestion/Anti-pasta.” Cabinet, Spring 2003. Available here.
7. The ninth declaration in Marinetti’s Manifesto of Futurism reads: “We intend to glorify war — the only hygiene of the world — militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of anarchists, beautiful ideas worth dying for, and contempt for woman.” See Rainey, et al. 51.
8. Scappettone. 171-72.
9, 10. Scappettone. 171.
11. Scappettone. 176.
12. Scappettone. 188.
13. Scappettone, 162.
14. Scappettone, 191.
15. Scappettone, 225. Quoting Adorno, Theodor. Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life. London: Verso, 2005. 151.
16. Adorno, Minima Moralia, Part II, dated 1945. Aphorism 98, London: Verso, 2005. 151.
17. Adorno, 152.

Bad Art

Two weeks ago, on a beautiful Spring afternoon in Florence, I did what countless travelers before me have done. I found an outside table at the Cafe Rivoire, sat down with my wife, ordered a negroni, gazed across the Piazza della Signoria, and thought about monsters.

 

Caravaggio (1571-1610). Testa di Medusa. c. 1597. Uffizi Gallery.

We had just left the Uffizi and Caravaggio’s Testa di Medusa had done its work. I stood captivated before this beautiful and horrifying thing — a living, enraged decapitation, blood gushing from its neck — as it floated and shimmered in its bulletproof vitrine. She is the very definition of an uncanny hybrid — both living and dead, human and reptilian, endowed with the powers of both apotropaic protection and mythic petrification. Hal Foster writes that Medusa, as an art historical subject, blurs all categories — “she is depicted as both young and old, beautiful and ugly, mortal and immortal, celestial and infernal, […] bestial and human as well.”1Foster, Hal. “Medusa and the Real.” RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics, No. 44 (Autumn 2003.) 182. She “fuses genders” and creates a primordial type of fear out of horror and confusion.2Foster, 182. Here quoting Jean-Pierre Vernant. Indeed, this Medusa may be Caravaggio’s self-portrait. Marin, Louis. To Destroy Painting. M. Hjorth, trans. Chicago: University of Chicago. 1995. 135 In another fusion of contradictions, I see Medusa’s silent scream.

This space is electrified by a web of gazes, reflections and projections. I gaze at Medusa. She averts her eyes to gaze downward, transfixed, perhaps, by her own reflection in Perseus’ secret weapon, his mirror-like shield. I see myself and the space around me reflected in the slick, mirror-like varnish of the shield. Philosopher Slavoj Žižek sees gaze and voice in relation, as life relates to death. The gaze, he writes, mortifies — the voice vivifies.3Žižek, Slavoj. Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism. London: Verso. 2012. 670. And so, in Medusa’s silenced scream, Žižek sees true horror:

At this point an image emerges, an image that stands for absolute death, for death beyond the cycle of death and rebirth, corruption and generation. [To see] absolute silence marks the suspension of life, as in Caravaggio’s Testa di Medusa: is not the scream of Medusa by definition silent, “stuck in the throat,” and does not this painting provide an image of the moment at which the voice fails?4Žižek. 670-71.

To be heard, in other words, is life — and to be silenced is a special kind of death, unnatural, a death beyond death.

Caravaggio painted Medusa on a round, convex shield — a ceremonial  Gorgoneion for his patron. The curved, convex surface thrusts Medusa forward, towards us. Yet Caravaggio renders the green background and Medusa’s cast shadow as a concave space. Medusa’s world also recedes. The effect is not contradictory, it is magical — Medusa’s bleeding head floats in a conjured, strangely hyper-dimensional space, a space of joined contradictions, a convex concavity, a space of bothness — a space Caravaggio created for this monster.5Louis Marin discusses this convexity in Panofsky’s terms. With this convex shield, Caravaggio violates theoretical linear perspective, a ‘visual image,’ in order to create the distortions that mimic our actual perception, or a ‘retinal image.’ The distortion creates a more convincing illusion, a more natural monster. Marin. To Destroy Painting. 126-130. See also Erwin Panofsky, Perspective as Symbolic Form. C. Wood, trans. Brooklyn: Zone. 27-36.

 

I saw it again, this monstrous space, days ago at the Whitney. Dana Schutz’s Open Casket, a meditation on the atrocity visited upon Emmett Till, swells beyond painting’s plane. The lower portion of the fourteen-year-old’s beaten and horrifically deformed face rises, physically forcing itself towards us, as if the crime exceeds the mechanics of its representation. It is a formal effect that eludes any reproduction, either online or in print. The artist has gashed into this protrusion to reveal a broken foundation beneath the painting’s plane. Like Caravaggio, Schutz creates a space both beyond and beneath painting’s plane — like Caravaggio, she creates this monstrous space of excess. In this case, the ghastly excess is not mythical or metaphysical, it is the monstrous excess of human cruelty. The gash is located where Till’s mouth should be — another open mouth, another silent scream, another death beyond death.

Dana Schutz (b. 1976). Open Casket. 2016.

 

Unknown photographer. Page 36 from a travel album in the collection of the Horace Mann School, Boston. 1869. Via the City of Boston Archives. 4020.047.

From the cafe, I look across the piazza to the Loggia dei Lanzi. It once sheltered the duke’s feared landsknechts, his mercenary force of German pikemen. Now it shelters epic scenes of mythical and historical violence. The open-air sculpture court features depictions of not one, but two rapes — a soldier dying in an ancient war, and Hercules, with a workman-like resolve, beating the centaur Nessus to death with a club.

In the midst of this tumult, I was transfixed by yet another Medusa. Cellini’s Perseus, with Hermes’ wings on his feet, Hades’ magic helmet on his head, and Zeus’ adamantine sword in his hand, holds Medusa’s severed head aloft to the throng of tourists and Florentines, just as he has since the sixteenth century. Perseus is a cast-bronze triumph, and at the time of its creation, a technological marvel. Perseus is pure muscular perfection, superhuman, a superman in bronze. He embodies the human qualities of victory: beauty, bravery and cunning. Medusa’s decapitated body lies lithe at Perseus’ feet, a gush of strange, turgid blood bursts from her neck. The same grotesque sanguinity falls from her severed head like a thick braid.

Benvenuto Cellini (1500-1571). Perseus with the Head of Medusa. 1545.

The victory of Perseus over Medusa seems so definitive, so final. Medusa is decapitated, her lifeless body forever violated. But nothing is never not ambiguous when it comes to Medusa, she is nothing but ambiguity. Perseus and Medusa are uncannily the same, each a reflection of the other. Both cast their gaze down to us, and as we look up, we see a repeated countenance —  two faces that share an eerie resemblance. Julia Kristeva reads Medusa as Perseus’ “grieved double.”6Kristeva, Julia. The Severed Head. New York: Columbia. 2012. 35. She writes:

“An unnerving impression of likeness emerges from this interweaving: lying down — standing, severed — intact, man — woman, old — young. A play of mirrors in which the hero displays, in two parts of the body from which spurt jets of metallic blood, his own castration, simultaneously anguished– as the withdrawn face of the bent Perseus indicates — and triumphant — as suggested by the posture and more insidiously by the living, horribly bloody, proffered torso of Medusa herself.”7Kristeva. 35.

Perseus is anguished and triumphant. Medusa is both living and dead. Contradictions weave themselves together, ambiguities electrify the loggia, bothness prevails.  Eros and Thanatos intertwine and reflect each other in a never-ending mise en abyme.

Medusa’s right arm, as muscular and toned as Perseus’, fall lifeless from the pedestal. At the end of her  arm, her index finger rises, as if to say, “Un moment per favore, I’m not dead yet.”

Benvenuto Cellini. Perseus with the Head of Medusa. 1545. Detail of Medusa’s right arm.

 

Medusa appeared again to me this past Winter, on a clear, cold day, on an outdoor terrace at the Whitney. This bronze monster, a goofy grotesque — as ambiguous as Cellini’s, but hilariously funny —  stopped me in my tracks.

Robert Longo (b. 1953). All You Zombies: Truth Before God. 1986/2012 (cast 2012).

Here Medusa and Perseus have finally merged into a single hybrid being, mostly male — he is festooned with the kitschy accoutrement of twentieth-century violent machismo — yet this being retains the essential hybridity and bothness of Medusa. For example, Longo’s monster has a doubled face — but rather than being separate and ambiguous, these faces are merged and monstrous. Each bestial mouth is caught in silent scream, a monstrous howl. Medusa’s reptilian hair snakes under this monster’s ridiculous samurai/gladiator/viking/football helmet. The creature’s right arm holds aloft not a severed head, but an inverted and doubled flag, American on one side, Soviet on the other. He seems to stab himself with the flagpole’s spear-shaped finial. Here Thanatos has gotten the upper hand, along with a Reagan-era makeover.

Robert Longo. All You Zombies: Truth Before God. 1986/2012 (cast 2012). Detail.

This beast’s body is comprised of a rough aggregate of hundreds of small objects: toy soldiers, man-sized bullets, snakes, springs, nuts and bolts — the sweepings, perhaps, of some imaginary battle. It’s all held together with chains, industrial hardware, a bicycle tire, and garlands of belted machine gun ammunition. An Alien-like hand reaches out from the monster’s chest — as if Medusa is within and trying to escape. A vestigial Medusan breast sits atop the bones of an exposed ribcage. The creature is armed to its canines, not with the magical tools of the Greek gods, but with the ordinary weapons of petit destruction with which we are familiar — a revolver, a Ka-Bar knife, grenades, and a weapon that looks borrowed, not from Athena, but from the set of Ghostbusters. In place of Zeus’ sword, this monster carries a sawed-off electric guitar neck, his axe. In place of Hermes’ magic sandals, a bat-wing sprouts from one of this beast’s reptilian ankles. He displays his genitals, but they echo less Perseus’ pudenda than a penis-scaled ballistic missile, a little Minuteman caught at the moment of launch. On his rump, he sprouts a pig’s tail. Just below that, a brace of thunderbolts shoots out of his anus, as if an angry Zeus is in there, somewhere, clamoring to get out. As one viewer put it on that cold afternoon, “This thing is awesome!”

Longo’s Perseus/Medusa is an equal-opportunity wrecker, ideologically pan-denominational, a testament to intersectionality. Around his neck, along with symbols for the world’s religions, he sports a swastika, a peace sign, a dollar sign, and the ancient astronomical symbols for both Mars and Venus, the realms of masculine and feminine. Ambiguity acquiesces to universality. No one ideology can claim this monstrosity, but this monster can claim them all. In that sense, Longo seems to be delivering not a warning, but a premonition. Or, if we dare take the title seriously, an all-too-human truth before God.

Robert Longo. All You Zombies: Truth Before God. 1986/2012 (cast 2012). Detail.

 

What Caravaggio, Schutz, Cellini, and Longo have created are textbook examples of bad art. Someone, at some point, claiming some position of authority, tells us so. But what is bad art? It seems to be an amorphous, subjective, and ill-defined concept, yet making moral judgements on objects, as ridiculous as that sounds, appears to be the major preoccupation of art critics, art historians, teachers, and the army of scribes that have produced our immense library of art writing. For example, one art historian denounces Cellini’s Perseus as a celebration of tyranny, patriarchy, and collective sexual deviance.8Even, Yael. “The Loggia dei Lanzi: A Showcase of Female Subjugation” in Women’s Art Journal, Vol. 12, No. 1 (Spring-Summer, 1991), 10-14. Medusa, as an art historical subject, is now seen as a perpetual female victim — a victim of an original sin buried deep in our ancient mythological past, a symbolic rape recommitted with each retelling of the tale.9See Elizabeth Johnson, The Original ‘Nasty Woman’ here. Schutz’s painting was the subject of a recent art-world controversy. It was considered by some to be so exploitive — and so dangerous to look at — that the only reasonable remedy would be the work’s destruction. Critic Jerry Saltz, writing about Longo’s monstrosity, confesses a certain shame in liking the work, even though it it so irredeemably bad; it’s ugly, bombastic, cartoonish, hyper-masculine, and a relic of the high renaissance of bad art in America — the 1980s. Just describing it, Saltz writes, is embarrassing. And yet here he is on the roof of the Whitney, bubbling up from the past to confront us once again, rising from some art-critical grave, not miraculously, like Lazarus, but monstrously, like some undead ghoul impervious to its own terminal badness — and he’s looking hale. Saltz wonders if terms like ‘good’ and ‘bad’ lose their power when considering the risen art of the recent past, and I think this is so. Longo’s Zombieland is a place beyond good and evil.

 

[F]or [Asclepius] had received from Athena the blood that flowed from the veins of the Gorgon, and while he used the blood that flowed from the veins on the left side for the bane of mankind, he used the blood that flowed from the veins on the right side for salvation, and by that means he raised the dead.10Apollodorus. The Library. Trans. J. Frazer. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. 1921. Vol. II, 17.

The Medusa story ends with a gift. According to the Bibliotheca of Apollodorus, after receiving Medusa’s head from Perseus, Athena gave Asclepius, the Greek god of medicine, blood that fell from the veins in Medusa’s neck. This Medusan blood is magical, it has the ability to both kill and bring the dead back to life. This bothness is captured in the Greek term pharmakon, a term famously retrieved from Plato’s Phaedrus and developed by Jacques Derrida.11Derrida, Jacques. “Plato’s Pharmacy” in Dissemination. London: Athlone Press. 1981. 61-172. Pharmakon is a strange term with multiple and contradictory definitions — it can mean either medicine or poison, a philter or a spell, either curative or deadly. But in fact, the pharmakon is neither good nor bad — Athena’s gift reduces Medusa’s monstrous hybridity to the potential of opposites. Pharmakon only becomes paradox when seen through Manichean eyes.

Asclepius (center) in the Bracchio Nuovo at the Vatican Museum. He holds the Rod of Asclepius, still used as a symbol for medicine and healing, entwined with its snake. The Ancient Greeks recognized that venom was both deadly and beneficial — a pharmakon — a poison that is its own antidote.

Art is pharmakon, a potential that stands before us neither good nor bad, neither guilty nor innocent, but always suspect because it is powerful medicine. In Phaedrus, Socrates discusses the emptiness of mimesis, whether painting or poetry, word or image. Art appears to us as wisdom, but that wisdom is a conceit, a trick — an empty semblance of actual knowledge.12Plato. The Collected Dialogs of Plato. E. Hamilton and H. Cairns, eds. Bollingen Series LXXI. Princeton: Princeton University Press. 1961. Phaedrus 275a. 520. Painting is particularly dumb:

Socrates: You know, Phaedrus, that’s the strange thing about writing, which makes it truly analogous to painting. The painter’s products stand before us as though they were alive, but if you question them, they maintain a most majestic silence. It is the same with written words: they seem to talk to you as though they were intelligent, but if you ask them anything about what they say, from a desire to be instructed, they go on telling you just the same thing forever.13Plato. Phaedrus. 275d. 521.

Socrates argues that art’s emptiness and silence and as-if vivacity leave it not dangerous, but vulnerable. Sent out into the world, art drifts all over, gets into the hands of those who understand — or not — and when it is ill-treated and unfairly abused, it is utterly defenseless.14Plato. Phaedrus. 275e. 521.

 

Ancient Athens, in times of trouble, relied on ritual to save it. In order to purify the the city and propitiate the gods — to keep pestilence, bad harvests, and devastation away — a sacrifice was made. An unclean man — disabled, criminal, or simply the ugliest man to be found — would be identified and fed a ritual meal. He would have been adorned with figs, beaten about his genitals with branches and squills (drimia maritima, a plant that, coincidentally, is both medicinal and poisonous), led solemnly to the gates of the city, and with the possible inducement of a few thrown stones, sent out, forever, bearing, as Louis Farnell writes, “the sins of the people into the wilderness.”15Farnell, Louis R. The Cults of the Greek States. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 1907. Vol. IV, 271. The scapegoat might also be hurled from a cliff into the sea, or burned alive, or stoned to death.

This is the cleansing ritual of the scapegoat, or, in Greek, the pharmakos — a cousin of the pharmakon, and sibling to the ejaculatory pleasure of expulsion that I have written about previously. When art is attacked — as ugly, impure, transgressive and bad — it functions precisely as the pharmakos. Like it, art is neither guilty nor innocent, and by virtue of its singular disability — its majestic silence — art is utterly defenseless, making it such a tempting scapegoat. Bad art bears not the guilt of its own badness, but the anxieties of its beholders, a burden thrust upon it, to be carried out into some make-believe bad art wilderness, to be made gone forever.

But art makes a spectacularly poor scapegoat because it does what scapegoats should never do — it keeps coming back. After many years, Longo’s monster pops up to surprise a critic on the roof of the Whitney. Schutz’s painting remains, bearing its new burden. Medusa’s head, still screaming silently, has been recently raised from some phony sea, and awaits my gaze on an island in Venice.16Early reviews of Damien Hirst’s latest exhibition are in — and the art isn’t just bad, it’s a disaster. I can’t wait to see such epic badness for myself!

— Michael Westfall

Damien Hirst (b. 1965). The Severed Head of Medusa, part of the exhibition ‘Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable.’ 2017.

Notes   [ + ]

1. Foster, Hal. “Medusa and the Real.” RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics, No. 44 (Autumn 2003.) 182.
2. Foster, 182. Here quoting Jean-Pierre Vernant. Indeed, this Medusa may be Caravaggio’s self-portrait. Marin, Louis. To Destroy Painting. M. Hjorth, trans. Chicago: University of Chicago. 1995. 135
3. Žižek, Slavoj. Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism. London: Verso. 2012. 670.
4. Žižek. 670-71.
5. Louis Marin discusses this convexity in Panofsky’s terms. With this convex shield, Caravaggio violates theoretical linear perspective, a ‘visual image,’ in order to create the distortions that mimic our actual perception, or a ‘retinal image.’ The distortion creates a more convincing illusion, a more natural monster. Marin. To Destroy Painting. 126-130. See also Erwin Panofsky, Perspective as Symbolic Form. C. Wood, trans. Brooklyn: Zone. 27-36.
6. Kristeva, Julia. The Severed Head. New York: Columbia. 2012. 35.
7. Kristeva. 35.
8. Even, Yael. “The Loggia dei Lanzi: A Showcase of Female Subjugation” in Women’s Art Journal, Vol. 12, No. 1 (Spring-Summer, 1991), 10-14.
9. See Elizabeth Johnson, The Original ‘Nasty Woman’ here.
10. Apollodorus. The Library. Trans. J. Frazer. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. 1921. Vol. II, 17.
11. Derrida, Jacques. “Plato’s Pharmacy” in Dissemination. London: Athlone Press. 1981. 61-172.
12. Plato. The Collected Dialogs of Plato. E. Hamilton and H. Cairns, eds. Bollingen Series LXXI. Princeton: Princeton University Press. 1961. Phaedrus 275a. 520.
13. Plato. Phaedrus. 275d. 521.
14. Plato. Phaedrus. 275e. 521.
15. Farnell, Louis R. The Cults of the Greek States. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 1907. Vol. IV, 271. The scapegoat might also be hurled from a cliff into the sea, or burned alive, or stoned to death.
16. Early reviews of Damien Hirst’s latest exhibition are in — and the art isn’t just bad, it’s a disaster. I can’t wait to see such epic badness for myself!

Feedback Loops

The first thought that came to mind as I became beguiled by Marilyn Minter’s Green Pink Caviar was a certain type of denouement, a post-climax climax, seen occasionally in a certain sub-genre of very smutty film. Minter mimics the fetishist’s precision of fixation on a very particular and very anonymous body part engaged in a very specific activity — a mouth stuck in an endless loop of slurping and spitting, like an eternal pendulum swinging between disgust and desire. Resolution is not a possibility in this post-climax world — resolution has already happened, it is already a memory, it has come but not yet gone. These languid lips continue to suck and slurp post-petite mort, as if they are attached to some beautiful, fixated, erotic zombie. As one beholder has it, perfectly and concisely, “This is sick and horny.” (A statement I interpret as high praise.)

Resolution is the farthest thing from the desiring mind. Lacan tells us that the pleasure is in the desiring itself. Desire is a want, a hunger, a void folded in on itself — lack endlessly feeding back on itself. Desire’s painful pleasure is in, paradoxically, un-attainment. Desire is insatiable — insatiability is Minter’s theme.

Marilyn Minter. Still from Green Pink Caviar. Video. 2009.

Marilyn Minter. Still from Green Pink Caviar. Video. 2009.

Marilyn Minter. Still from Green Pink Caviar. Video. 2009.

Marilyn Minter. Still from Green Pink Caviar. Video. 2009.

Marilyn Minter. Still from Green Pink Caviar. Video. 2009.

Then I thought of the seasons. It’s Minter’s colors that did it, and their order. In the first scene, the electric alien-green color of the goo being lovingly licked up and drooled out reminded me of springtime; the warm, shimmering metallic gold of the following scene brought to mind the colors of a late summer’s harvest; then, the orange and red, an odd and radiant fall landscape; and finally, the shimmering, metallic chill of the final scene reminded me of winter. I imagined some strange book of hours, images of a kind of fishy, oral and human devotion-compulsion, set into the eternal cosmic rhythm of the seasons.  I saw a doubled temporal structure organizing Green Pink Caviar — the passing of seasons, repeating endlessly as a foil to the incessant, breath-like flowing and constantly present rhythm of licking, sucking and spitting. I saw one endless feedback cycle embedded in another endless feedback cycle, each one feeding and folding on the other.

I thought about Breugel’s seasons and the golden-ness of The Harvesters in New York. Something about the silver-chrome smears of the last act of Green Pink Caviar brought me back to a room in Vienna, filled with Bruegel’s miraculous paintings, and one in particular — the cold and wintery Hunters in the Snow. I was reminded that time, entropy, and the Earth are all insatiable, too.

Saal X, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Wien.

Pieter Bruegel. Hunters in the Snow. 1565. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.

Pieter Bruegel. The Harvesters. 1565. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

 

A young Viennese man-about-town emerges from a frame of  brilliant yellow-green. He is wearing a suit with a dark tie and a pocket square done up in an elegant crown fold. He is seated behind a desk, surrounded by papers and a bottle of wine. He appears serious, maybe a bit apprehensive.

Otmar Bauer. Still from the film “Zeigt.” 1969.

Otmar Bauer. Still from the film “Zeigt.” 1969.

Otmar Bauer. Still from the film “Zeigt.” 1969.

Otmar Bauer. Still from the film “Zeigt.” 1969.

Otmar Bauer. Still from the film “Zeigt.” 1969.

Otmar Bauer. Still from the film “Zeigt.” 1969.

Otmar Bauer. Still from the film “Zeigt.” 1969.

Otmar Bauer. Still from the film “Zeigt.” 1969.

Otmar Bauer. Still from the film “Zeigt.” 1969.

He takes the wine bottle and drinks. After ingesting most of the wine in a matter of seconds, he retches, puking all over the desk in front of him. He gathers up the vomitus with his hands and consumes it, which causes, immediately, more spasms of vomiting, which he gathers up, chokes down, pukes up, and so on. He has put himself and his body in a precise and literal feedback loop of consumption and eruption. He concludes by breaking the loop, escaping the spiral vortex — he rubs his head and body with his own vomit, stands up and laughs with pure joy. Ende.

The film is Zeigt by Otmar Bauer, produced in 1969. He was a participant in the artistic movement, Wiener Aktionismus, which shocked that staid city during the 60s with work, films, and performances that trafficked in disgust. The human body was the Actionist canvas, and its effluvia were the Actionist’s materials — shit, semen, vomit, piss and blood — so much blood. Until recently, the Vienna Actionists were shunted off the main line of modernism, off into a critical and provincial cul-de-sac. Actionism was seen as an interesting, if reactionary, self-flagellating symptom of Teutonic guilt haunting the post-war generation of Mitteleuropa. Which, of course, it is. What Vienna Actionism is not, it turns out, is easily dismissed as a sick-and-horny, art historical dead-end. The nascent critical reemergence of Vienna Actionism in the United States provides needed context for the phenomenally popular work of Marina Abramovic, the performances of Carolee Schneemann, the interventions of the Russian collective Война, and the transgressions of Petr Pavlensky, for example. Comparing Bauer’s Zeigt and Minter’s Green Pink Caviar provides more than context or some sort of meaningless art historical primogeniture. Instead, they share a topos, each one illuminates the basic mechanics and complexities of transgression.

 

One of the more entertaining art historical feuds occurred in the late 1920s between André Breton and Georges Bataille. Breton, the father of Surrealism, published the Second Manifesto of Surrealism to define what the movement was, and more importantly, what it was not. In the manifesto, he describes Surrealism as a caustic ideology —  one that dissolves the differences of opposition. He writes, “Everything tends to make us believe that there exists a certain point of the mind at which life and death, the real and the imagined, past and future, the communicable and the incommunicable, high and low, cease to be perceived as contradictions.”1Breton, André. “Second Manifesto of Surrealism,” in Manifestos of Surrealism. Trans. R. Seaver and H. Lane. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press. 1972. 123. Surrealism’s goal is to find that point. He then goes on to call out by name, un par un, traitors to the Surrealist cause. Breton expels them all, creating Surrealism’s contradictory opposite, an amorphous not-Surrealism against which he can rail.2This divisive tactic apparently lives on in daily provocations of our current Surrealist-in-Chief, Trump. Breton’s Manifesto is also infamous for this provocative sentence: “The simplest Surrealist act consists of dashing down the street, pistol in hand, and firing blindly, as fast as you can pull the trigger, into a crowd.” (Breton, 125.)  Compare this with Trump’s surrealistic comment here. His most formidable nemesis, Bataille, he saves for last.

At the close of the Manifesto, Breton upbraids Bataille for counterrevolutionary anti-idealism, for choosing, instead, to wallow in madness and obnoxious investigations of the filthy crevices of the human mind and body. Breton attacks Bataille’s use of adjectives, condemns him for adhering to a boneheaded brand of materialism, makes an armchair attempt at diagnosing Bataille’s psychopathology, and, finally, charges Bataille with impudence for soiling the “impeccable integrity” of the heroic Marquis de Sade.3Breton. 180-86.

Bataille published a steady stream of heretical essays, and each one needled Breton. In one in particular, The Use Value of D. A. F. de Sade, Bataille describes two philosophical-psychological teleologies of Sade’s work.4Bataille, Georges. “The Use Value of D. A. F. de Sade (An Open Letter to My Current Comrades)” in Visions of Excess, A. Stoekl, trans. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. 1985. The essay, according to Denis Hollier, was published only posthumously. In it he makes the case for his understanding of Sade, and corrects Breton’s.

In Bataille’s view, to worship Sade as a demonically  sub-human or divinely super-human destructive force is to miss the point. This renders Sade, as Bataille terms it, a foreign body — the use value of Sade is in overloading this foreign body with exaltation and loathing — what is both beyond and beneath our  comfort and human understanding– and voiding the entire mess, like sending a scapegoat out into the wilderness, or, more precisely, like taking a good shit.5Bataille. 92. This leaves one feeling lighthearted, relieved, unencumbered by troubling internal matter, whether it is physical, metaphysical, or psychological. And in this excretory relief there is also ejaculatory pleasure — Bataille builds a Borgesian encyclopedia of excretory delights: urination, vomiting, defecation, ritual sacrifice of animal-gods, sexual activity (perverse and not perverse), gambling, sobbing, religious ecstasy, the laughter of exclusion, orgiastic impulses of the mob, the excessive adornment of bejeweled women — each one categorically linked by the shared pleasure, as Bataille writes, of brutal rupture.6Left unmentioned is Breton’s ejection of Bataille from the Surrealist orthodoxy. Bataille, to be sure, understood Breton’s relief and pleasure in cleaning the Surrealist house.

But this is only half of the story. Bataille opposes this notion of violent scatalogical rupture and excretion with the harder-to-swallow impulse of appropriation —  fundamental urge to take in, to consume, to eat. Bataille sees, in the oppositional relationship between these two linked animal urges, a fundamental engine for human behavior — from the distant and ancient social taboos and ritual to the rise and supremacy of capitalism.

Sade’s genius, Bataille explains, is not in the destruction of the taboos and law and rationality that serve as limits to human experience, although there is perverse pleasure in expulsion — whether the foreign body is a troubling person, a troubling idea, or an entire troubling race — but rather in closing the loop between appropriation and excretion. Bataille cites an illustrative passage from Sade’s Justine:

Verneuil makes someone shit, he eats the turd, and then demands that someone eat his. The one who eats his shit vomits; he devours her puke.7Bataille. 95.

Sade sets these two fundamental and oppositional forces — appropriation and excretion — into a rhythm. Each one feeds the other — they are set into a feedback loop that defines, for Bataille, a natural relation — a dialectic of transgression. Foucault, writing about Bataille, amplifies this interdependence of limit and transgression. Limits are meaningless unless transgressed, and transgression needs a limit in order to exist. Each one gives form to the other. Foucault writes, “Transgression, then, is not related to the limit as black to white, the prohibited to the lawful, the outside to the inside[…] Rather their relationship takes the form of a spiral which no simple infraction can exhaust.”8Foucault, Michel. A “Preface to Transgression” in Language, Counter-Memory, Practice. D. Bouchard, ed and trans. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. 1977. 35. In other words, Foucault’s spiral is another feedback loop — limits and their transgressions are caught in a relationship of twinned insatiable desires — order and disorder, continuity and rupture, coherence and incoherence  — folded endlessly upon each other. In this process of consumption and expulsion, unspeakable worlds are consummated. Green Pink Caviar is one of those worlds — a world that is all orifice, stuck forever in a Sadean feedback loop.

— Michael Westfall

 

Notes   [ + ]

1. Breton, André. “Second Manifesto of Surrealism,” in Manifestos of Surrealism. Trans. R. Seaver and H. Lane. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press. 1972. 123.
2. This divisive tactic apparently lives on in daily provocations of our current Surrealist-in-Chief, Trump. Breton’s Manifesto is also infamous for this provocative sentence: “The simplest Surrealist act consists of dashing down the street, pistol in hand, and firing blindly, as fast as you can pull the trigger, into a crowd.” (Breton, 125.)  Compare this with Trump’s surrealistic comment here.
3. Breton. 180-86.
4. Bataille, Georges. “The Use Value of D. A. F. de Sade (An Open Letter to My Current Comrades)” in Visions of Excess, A. Stoekl, trans. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. 1985. The essay, according to Denis Hollier, was published only posthumously.
5. Bataille. 92.
6. Left unmentioned is Breton’s ejection of Bataille from the Surrealist orthodoxy. Bataille, to be sure, understood Breton’s relief and pleasure in cleaning the Surrealist house.
7. Bataille. 95.
8. Foucault, Michel. A “Preface to Transgression” in Language, Counter-Memory, Practice. D. Bouchard, ed and trans. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. 1977. 35.

I Hate Dick

One hundred and eighty five years ago, a drawing of a pear made a Frenchman art-history-famous. It was published by lithographer, caricaturist and journalist Charles Philipon (1800-1862) in Paris in 1832. It is instructive, in a Bob Ross kind of way — it depicts how, in four easy steps, the head of the king, Louis-Philippe I, could be magically transformed into a piece of fruit. For this, and other transgressions, Philipon was imprisoned, heavily fined, and had his newspaper seized by the state.1Kerr, David S. Caricature and French Political Culture 1830-1848: Charles Philipon and the Illustrated Press. Oxford University Press. 2000. 65-85. Kerr gives a wonderful and detailed account of the various political points sharply made by these pear-king caricatures.

Charles Philipon. The Pears. 1832

This royal crackdown had the unintended consequence of popularizing the whole affair — its victim owned a satirical newspaper, after all — and the image of the pear became wildly popular. Soon after Philipon’s caricature was published, Paris was awash with pear-king cartoons. The works created by these caricaturists are generally held to be examples of artistic integrity, of the power of art and artists to speak truth to power, and of a certain, specifically Gallic, satiric charm. These caricatures provide the starting point for an art historical thread that follows rabidly secular social critique, which lives on, though severely wounded, today.

Auguste Bouquet. Favorites (Whiskers) of the Pear. (Les favoris de la poire.) La Caricature. 1833.

Honoré Daumier. Une énorme poire pendue par des hommes du peuple. 1832.

Charles-Joseph Traviès de Villers. Voici Messieurs, ce que nous avons l’honneur d’exposer journellement. 1834.

Honoré Daumier. Le Cauchemar (The Nightmare). 1832.

Charles Philipon. Projet d’un monument Expia-poire à élever sur la place de la révolution, précisément à la place où fut guillotiné Louis XVI inventé par Ch. Philipon et dessiné par M… C’est “une poire colossale sur un piédestal bien simple, bien bourgeois” et sur ce piédestal, l’inscription : 27, 28 et 29 juillet 1830. 1832.

Charles-Joseph Traviès de Villers. Ah ! scélérate de poire pourquoi n’es-tu pas une vérité ! ou M. Mahieux poiricide : il s’apprête à couper la poire qui n’a pas tenu ses promesses. 1832.

With this shopworn bit of legerdemain — the old switcheroo — the artists magically shift the object of popular imagination from the king’s still-sacred and legally protected image to that of a piece of fruit, and offers a comically thin veil of deniability. The pear suffers the tender mercies of public rage, as one historian writes: “Philipon’s artists were able to inflict an extraordinary variety of symbolic tortures on the king. Louis-Philippe was hanged, drawn, and quartered […] When accused of incitement to regicide in court, Philipon was able to reply, with some justification, that he could at most be accused of incitement to make jam.”2Kerr. 85.

In this magical world of caricature, the pear shifts in scale and meaning. It first stands in for the king’s disembodied head, then it  grows to represent his entire body, and then grows even larger to represent the body of the entire state. It grows to monumental proportions — the colossal pear is imagined atop a column placed at the precise location of the last royal beheading. And, suddenly, in a strange image, the pear shrinks back to its natural size, to be picked up by a monstrous hunchbacked dwarf, grimacing as he looks heavenward, and prepares to slice the pear in half — an act of pomological beheading. But here the fruit resembles not a head, but a scrotum — in an act of satirical overdetermination, the artist has transfigured the pear into a pair. The royal pear-beheading becomes a double insult — at once an act of decapitation and an act of castration. In Paris, in 1832, the image caused a sensation.

Philip Guston. Untitled (Poor Richard). 1971. Like Philipon, Guston show us a step-by-step transfiguration; the president’s head  grows and transforms, not into a pear, but into a full set of tackle.

In October, 1970, Hilton Kramer, art critic for the New York Times, decided to take Philip Guston (1913-1980) down a notch or two. In a notorious review entitled A Mandarin Pretending to be a Stumblebum, Kramer describes Guston as “something of a sacred figure,” and then proceeds to systematically disabuse his readers of this ridiculous notion. Guston, Kramer asserts, is a stylistic carpetbagger, a “latecomer,” a “colonizer rather than a pioneer.” With his new figurative paintings, Kramer tells us, Guston once again misses the Zeitgeist-boat with his reactionary, anti-intellectual and out-of-touch return to content after making a name for himself as a kind of sham abstractionist.3Guston’s daughter, Musa Mayer, responded to Kramer’s hit piece with an inspired letter to the Times. The letter should be required reading for every art historian and art critic as it serves as a reminder for the proper place of art writing in general. A taste: “And as long as I’m on the subject of the ethics of art criticism, when did it happen that so many critics forgot the simple truth that art precedes art criticism, not only in time, but in importance? At what point did the parasites begin to consume the host; at what point, I would ask Kramer, did critics set themselves up as manipulators and politicians and lose touch with what art is really all about?”

Guston was stung. He went to Italy to teach and visit his beloved Renaissance paintings. When he returned, he relocated to Woodstock, New York, and withdrew from the New York City art scene. There he met Philip Roth, who also went up the river to escape critical fallout — in his case caused by his recently published novel, Portnoy’s Complaint. Roth was writing Our Gang, a satirical Nixon-novel, and he encouraged Guston to join the cause. Guston’s project, culminating in a narrative series of 73 drawings entitled Poor Richard, was not published until 2001, some thirty years after its creation, and some twenty years after Guston’s premature death. The Poor Richard drawings, scores of preliminary sketches and awesome, obscene culls, were recently on view at Hauser & Wirth in New York.

Philip Guston. Untitled (Poor Richard). 1971.

Philip Guston. Untitled (Poor Richard). 1971.

Philip Guston. Untitled (Poor Richard). 1971. From left to right: Kissinger, Agnew, Nixon and Mitchell.

Philip Guston. Untitled (Poor Richard). 1971. Compare to this B. Kliban gem.

Philip Guston. Untitled (Poor Richard). 1971.

Philip Guston. Untitled (Poor Richard). 1971. The original “baskets of deplorables.”

Guston invites us to read images that describe a spare, mute, alternative-universe narrative of Nixon’s life. From childhood damp-dreams of grandeur, Nixon rises to political power, assembles a crony cabinet, then panders, bullies, and sets sail to China. By the end of the story we all know the fall is inevitable. The severed head of Nixon, now castrate, lies next to Agnew’s and Kissinger’s amid rubble in a desolate, lonesome landscape. In the next image, our antihero and his companions are deposited into the dustbin of history. Then, in a wonderfully bizarre coda, each one rises, zombie-like, from their ashcan grave. Our antiheroes board a boat in the form of a comic-book toilet and set sail, one more time, into the sunset, off to their beachy Xanadu, Key Biscayne. There, they become pastries — Nixon a cookie, Agnew a sponge cake, and Kissinger, a pot pie. The gang is transformed into their own just desserts, and Poor Richard’s saga is baked into our American history, whether we like it or not.

Philip Guston. San Clemente. 1975.

The show leads us in the end to a painting, San Clemente, made after the Watergate scandal. It depicts Nixon as a sad creature. He walks the beach shod in just one of his ex-presidential oxfords, working against the wind, his once-turgid nose droops flaccid and ponderous, a single tear from a bloodshot eye stains his testicle-cheek. He drags an enormous, necrotic, monstrously swollen left leg. Nixon’s corruption was not some mythical Achilles’ heel, but a very real, very loathsome anchor that pulled him, and us, down into the abyss.

Nixon on the beach.

Philip Guston. Poor Richard. Plate 70. 1971.

After his death, Guston would find himself critically and art historically rehabilitated. Peter Schjeldahl, for example, wrote that he was one of the many who hated Guston’s new paintings back in 1970. The paintings scared him.4See Schjeldahl’s 2003 essay on Guston, The Junkman’s Son in The New Yorker. Looking back, however, Schjeldahl now tells us that Guston’s late works are “the most important American painting of its time.” The paintings do indeed speak, Schjeldahl now thinks, with perfect pitch, of their time and their Zeitgeist, although he and the critics didn’t understand that at the time. Guston’s late work would augur the next decade of American painting — so-called Neo-Expressionism and the return to figuration in the 1980s — a period that has also eluded critics and art historians, and is just now emerging from institutional exile.5See Schjeldahl’s 2017 review, The Joy of Eighties Art in The New Yorker.

A few blocks south of the Guston exhibition, at Hauser & Wirth’s soon-to-be-demolished ex-Roxy space, another contemporary exile is busily scaring away most of the New York artworld. Paul McCarthy’s (b. 1945) current exhibition, Raw Spinoffs Continuations, has somehow eluded critical attention. It appears that critics’ tactics have changed over time. The outrage unleashed toward Guston almost a half a century ago has been replaced with something far safer, far more spineless, and just as wrong-headed — radio silence, broken only by feigned yawns and intermittent yelps of annoyance.6I’m thinking here, not just about the critical psuedo-silence regarding this show, but of the abbreviated Artforum review of McCarthy’s spectacular invasion of New York in 2013– which involved some 70 truckloads of art installed all over the city — that can be paraphrased with a few hysterical words accompanied by melodramatic hand-waving: “Eeew! Gross! Stop iiiii-it!” ¶McCarthy’s academic reception is not much better. I recall interviewing for a spot in an art history graduate program, and speaking with a professor who has become well-known for her writing on small-d democracy and “participatory art.” When I mentioned my enthusiasm for McCarthy’s work, she puckered her face up into a grimace, as if I had just broken some foul wind in her tiny office, and declaimed: “Who could be interested in that old modernist!?!” This sort of art-hating art history professor used to shock me, but they are so common and I run into them so frequently that now I can only gin up some mild disgust and a bit of pity.

Paul McCarthy. Raw Spinoffs Continuations. Installation view.

Paul McCarthy. White Snow Dwarf, Dopey #1. Bronze. 2016.

Paul McCarthy. White Snow Dwarf, Grumpy. Bronze. 2016. In background, White Snow Dwarf, Sleepy #1. Bronze. 2016.

Paul McCarthy. White Snow Dwarf, Bashful. Bronze. 2016.

Anyone who might harbor the secret desire to grab a king-sized double-headed dildo and use it to beat the living bejeezus out of the nearest troll might find some solace in McCarthy’s current exhibition. The work is not overtly political, at first glance, but then again, it is. After stepping through the multiple crime-scenes of dwarfish calamity, continuing on to the back of Hauser & Wirth’s cavernous space, one finds George W. Bush rendered basking in the sweet afterglow of a good pig-schtupping — with metal rods shoved through his forehead. These are tableaux that one comes to expect from McCarthy, but the trick is to see through shock (or schlock, if you insist) in order to see what else might possibly be going on. McCarthy asked this of his audience long ago, and it is a critical skill, at this particular moment in our political history, that seems more necessary than ever.

Paul McCarthy. Paula Jones. 2005-2008. Detail.

Paul McCarthy. Puppet (Original). 2005-2008. Detail.

The abuse McCarthy’s dwarves have suffered dwarfs the pear-torture of Philipon’s artists, and Guston’s comic castrations; these dwarves have suffered the tribulations of the damned. Dopey’s eyes have been gouged out, Grumpy’s face has been bashed in, and the back of Bashful’s skull is missing. There is nothing left of Sneezy but armature and innards, two enormous feet, and a nose that emerges out of his block-head like an engorged pecker, which appears to be draped with a wet tube sock. As I consider poor Sneezy’s terrible fate, his pecker-nose and clown-feet bring back to mind one of Guston’s Poor Richard drawings.

Paul McCarthy. Sneezy. Bronze. 2016.

One of McCarthy’s preoccupations, and there are many, is facture, the process of wrenching something out of our quotidian world and making it into art. This is a difficult undertaking. While the dwarf-sculptures seem like they are meditations on the varieties of destruction, they are masterworks of construction as well. McCarthy spells out for us how creation and destruction are two sides of the same coin, or simply and paradoxically the same — like the two sides of a Möbius strip. The cast-bronze sculptures are lined up facing their original clay, foam and steel models so that they stand like mirrors to each other. But the mirror images are not quite exactly right, something seems fishy, as in Groucho and Harpo’s famous gag.

Paul McCarthy. Raw Spinoffs Continuations. Installation view. On the right side are the bronze dwarf sculptures, on the left, Nine Dwarves (Affected Originals) 2009-2016. A pallet (get it?) of the artist’s tools and materials sits in the far left foreground.

That sort of fissured Duck Soup repetition repeats once more. Two works, Chop Chop, Chopper, Amputation (Affected) and Amputation (AMP), Blue, echo like a tragicomic call and response between the quote-unquote-real-world and the art-world. The warm fleshy real world of wood and foam and plastic dildos and fake severed heads and and captain’s chairs is chopped up like salad and re-cast as something else — an echo amped, or amplified — a repeated, fiberglass feed-back art-world cleaned up and painted a jaunty, uniform Kleinish blue.

Paul McCarthy. Raw Spinoffs Continuations. Installation view. Nine Dwarves (Affected) in foreground, Chop Chop, Chopper, Amputation (Affected) in middle ground, Amputation (AMP), Blue in background.

Paul McCarthy. Chop Chop, Chopper, Amputation (Affected) 2013-2016.

Paul McCarthy. Amputation (AMP), Blue. Fiberglass. 2013-2016.

Paul McCarthy. Amputation (AMP), Blue. Fiberglass. 2013-2016. Detail.

Body parts, vessels, and tools litter the post-apocalyptic world of Amputation (AMP), Blue. The sculpture is like a Pompeii for the future, a relic of catastrophe that magically preserves an ancient, foreign and primitive culture in situ. The joke is on us — the primitive culture that is preserved is ours.

Paul McCarthy. Amputation (AMP), Blue. Fiberglass. 2013-2016. Detail.

Scattered amongst the rubble are countless dildo-parts. Mutilated penises are everywhere, some are chopped and served in a bowl — a strange fruit salad. Like Philipon and Guston before him, McCarthy offers us the cutting satire of castration, but the laughs are of a different sort. Gone are the knowing chuckles of Philipon’s continental drolleries, or the cartoonish barbs of Guston’s Poor Richard. It’s not a king or a president that is the target of McCarthy’s castratory excess — it’s every dick, everyman’s dick, dickishness itself  —  the table turns and McCarthy presents a democratic castration of the polis. Gazing at McCarthy’s funhouse mirror offers us the bleakest laughs of all — at ourselves and our perverse, congenital hubris and cultural fixation on destruction, violence, and (global) mayhem. We are all complicit. Surrounded by the blasted and mutilated detritus of a Disneyfied, suburbanized, Americanized armageddon it just might be that this didn’t just happen, like some Vesuvian natural disaster; we did this to ourselves — we are doing this to ourselves.

— Michael Westfall

Paul McCarthy. Amputation (AMP), Blue. Fiberglass. 2013-2016. Detail.

Notes   [ + ]

1. Kerr, David S. Caricature and French Political Culture 1830-1848: Charles Philipon and the Illustrated Press. Oxford University Press. 2000. 65-85. Kerr gives a wonderful and detailed account of the various political points sharply made by these pear-king caricatures.
2. Kerr. 85.
3. Guston’s daughter, Musa Mayer, responded to Kramer’s hit piece with an inspired letter to the Times. The letter should be required reading for every art historian and art critic as it serves as a reminder for the proper place of art writing in general. A taste: “And as long as I’m on the subject of the ethics of art criticism, when did it happen that so many critics forgot the simple truth that art precedes art criticism, not only in time, but in importance? At what point did the parasites begin to consume the host; at what point, I would ask Kramer, did critics set themselves up as manipulators and politicians and lose touch with what art is really all about?”
4. See Schjeldahl’s 2003 essay on Guston, The Junkman’s Son in The New Yorker.
5. See Schjeldahl’s 2017 review, The Joy of Eighties Art in The New Yorker.
6. I’m thinking here, not just about the critical psuedo-silence regarding this show, but of the abbreviated Artforum review of McCarthy’s spectacular invasion of New York in 2013– which involved some 70 truckloads of art installed all over the city — that can be paraphrased with a few hysterical words accompanied by melodramatic hand-waving: “Eeew! Gross! Stop iiiii-it!” ¶McCarthy’s academic reception is not much better. I recall interviewing for a spot in an art history graduate program, and speaking with a professor who has become well-known for her writing on small-d democracy and “participatory art.” When I mentioned my enthusiasm for McCarthy’s work, she puckered her face up into a grimace, as if I had just broken some foul wind in her tiny office, and declaimed: “Who could be interested in that old modernist!?!” This sort of art-hating art history professor used to shock me, but they are so common and I run into them so frequently that now I can only gin up some mild disgust and a bit of pity.

Celestial Emporiums of Benevolent Knowledge

We abhor the disorder of things. Disorder is, etymologically speaking, married to disease. Disorder is dis-ease. Disorder is also a confusion, an absence, a violation, a disturbance of mind or body. Destruction, rot, madness and death lurk at disorder’s edge. To defend ourselves against the immense entropic power of disorder we invent ways of organizing the world around us so that we may create an ordered and intelligible cosmos out of chaos. These ordering systems — whether they are called worldview, belief systemparadigmWeltanschauungepisteme, ideology or science — are fundamental to our grand culture-building exercises; they are the bones of man-made worlds.

In 1942, as world war was waging, Jorge Luis Borges published a short essay, John Wilkin’s Analytical Language, which describes the faults and fractures inherent in the human compulsion to order, to classify, and to name. As ur-example, Borges cites an ancient and imaginary Chinese encyclopedia:

These ambiguities, redundancies and deficiencies [of Wilkins’ analytical language] recall those attributed by doctor Franz Kuhn to a certain Chinese encyclopedia entitled the ‘Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge’. In its distant pages it is written that animals are divided into (a) those that belong to the emperor; (b) embalmed ones; (c) those that are trained; (d) suckling pigs; (e) mermaids; (f) fabulous ones; (g) stray dogs; (h) those that are included in this classification; (i) those that tremble as if they are mad; (j) innumerable ones; (k) those drawn with a very fine camel’s-hair brush; (l) etcetera; (m) those that have just broken the water pitcher; (n) those that from a distance resemble flies.1Borges, Jorge Luis. “John Wilkin’s Analytical Language (1942)” in Selected Non-Fictions. Eliot Weinberger, ed. New York: Penguin, 1999. 229-232. This is the passage that set Michel Foucault on the path to write The Order of Things.

Borges’ essay traces not only the limits of language but the limits of human knowledge. The tragicomic kernel of the Celestial Emporium is an uncomfortable truth — as necessary and beloved as our ordering systems are, each one is congenitally flawed. Each one is imaginary, arbitrary, provisional, and incomplete. Each one is as absurd as another, and yet we can’t live without them. If there actually is such a thing as a unified and ordered universe, Borges writes, “then we must speculate on its purpose; we must speculate on the words, definitions, etymologies, and synonymies of God’s secret dictionary.”2Borges. 231.

The Keeper, a recent exhibition at the New Museum, echoes Borges’ ancient encyclopedia. It is a collection of collections, a fragmentary encyclopedic catalog of projects, each one a speculation on God’s secret dictionary. But these speculations are presented outside of language, in the pre-linguistic, or, more accurately, in the ultra-linguistic realm of image and object, and so, necessarily, they do their philological work using what may seem to be queer methods. Even so, there are methodological and strategic similarities between them. Massimiliano Gioni, chief curator, organized his encyclopedia-exhibition around the notion of collecting, a universe-building exercise that, as he writes, is a Sisyphean and cyclical struggle between order and disorder; “to achieve the wholeness of a collection, one creates order and gives meaning to objects so that they form a universe of their own, which in turn becomes a mirror of the world in which these objects originated.”3Gioni, Massimiliano. “The Country of Last Things” in The Keeper, M. Gioni and N. Bell, eds. New York: New Museum, 2016. 10.

But there are cracks in that mirror. Writing about his own bibliophilia, Gioni reveals the anxieties of cosmos-building; the pleasure he finds in surveying his library soon gives way to distress. He writes, “I’m suddenly reminded of the infinite gaps in my library and the hundreds and thousands of books I don’t have [. ..] And all at once the abyss of deficiency gapes open before me […] my library will never be complete and [despair] accompanies the most painful realization of all: that what I am trying to hide behind these books might be the thing I fear the most — my absolute, impenetrable ignorance.”4Gioni, 11. Cosmos-building is a hedge against our limits, a wager with finitude. And all the while, chaos nips at the collector’s heels.

Arthur Bispo do Rosário. Dentaduras (Dentures). n.d.

Arthur Bispo do Rosário. Estrela de São João. n.d.

Arthur Bispo do Rosário. Manto da Apresentação (Presentation Mantle). n.d.

The Keeper presents thousands upon thousands of individual things, each one a cosmos-vision made actual and exquisitely particular. For example, Arthur Bispo do Rosário (1909/11-1989), an ex-sailor and diagnosed schizophrenic who spent much of his life in a psychiatric asylum in Brasil, created hundreds of embroidered tapestries, vestments, and constructions from junk and trash. He believed he was chosen by God to gather the salvagable world in advance of the Apocalypse. The ex-mariner filled his miniature arks with lists of names,  gathered cast-off objects into scrap-wood iconostases, and fashioned a coat to wear on the occasion of meeting God. It seems we need a madman to remind us that every thing, and therefore every one, no matter how broken, dirty or deplorable, is, actually, redeemable. Bispo’s objects stand as mute testimony to the possibility of redemption, of actual hope and change.

 

Zofia Rydet. Zapis socjologiczny (Sociological Record). c. 1978-1990.

Zofia Rydet. Zapis socjologiczny (Sociological Record). c. 1978-1990.

Zofia Rydet. Zapis socjologiczny (Sociological Record). c. 1978-1990.

Zofia Rydet (1911-1997), the Polish photographer, decided at age 67 to document the interior of every household in Poland. The black-and-white photographs show the inhabitants of their rooms surrounded, and part of, their own collections of objects and images. The incessant, unnatural wide-angle view and the incessant, unnatural light of a confrontational flash lend each photograph a familiar strangeness. They appear to be what they are: evidence photographs — proof of life, or proof of a specific type of disappearing highland life. A shadowed gloom threatens the image as the light of the flash falls off from the center of the image. A black void — true, primordial χἀος — lurks directly off-camera and gnaws at the edges of each picture.5I suspect it is the same black chaos that gnaws at the edges of Andrzej Stasiuk’s Tales of Galicia, a book of similar time and place as Rydet’s photographs.  The photographer’s apparatus animates and creates this world, rescues it from the void, and does so over and over again, room by room, frame by frame. Rydet’s entire mesmerizing magnum opus is digitized and searchable online.6A lovely tote emblazoned with a quote by Zofia Rydet, “Dzień w kotórym nie fotografuję, uważam za stracony.” (A day in which I don’t photograph is a day I consider lost.) is available from the Fundacja Sztuk Wizualnych (Foundation for Visual Arts) here.

 

Yuji Agematsu’s cigarette-cellophane street-detritus vitrines. c. 1997-2016.

Since 1997, artist Yuji Agematsu (b. 1956) has, on daily walks in New York City, collected tiny bits of the detritus and effluvia the city continually sheds and coughs up onto its sidewalks. Agematsu’s Celestial Emporium is as fragmentary and strange as Borges’ — (a) an unfurled, secondhand condom, (b) half-licked lollipops, (c) chewed gum, (d) gobs of hair of unidentifiable provenance, (e) broken Q-tips, (f) wee bits of rotting vegetation, (g) mysterious goo, (h) the desiccated claw of a bird long dead, (i) a penny, (j) etcetera, (k) things a reasonable person would try to avoid encountering with a shod foot — comprise a catalog of materials that Agematsu uses to create worlds as intricate and harmonious as our own. Two braided ordering cycles seem to be at work in these worlds. First, of course, is the daily repetition of the artist’s collection ritual, a repetition entering its twentieth year. Second is the rhythm of the objects populating the cellophane-wrapped worlds. Each bit of detritus flourished at some point — the plants grew, the bird flew, the penny was shiny, the lollipop once enticed someone in its original cellophane wrap. Each one died or was lost or was discarded and left to decay. Each bit was then snatched up by the artist’s hand, and restored to a second life in another world. The tension produced by these twinned lifecycles —  the daily repetition of the redemptive labor performed by the artist as he walks through time mirrored in the lifecycle of base earthly  material — birth, efflorescence, death, decay, and rebirth, and re-efflorescence and (re-)decay — is a silent and invisible force that animates this universe, and ours.

 

Korbinian Aigner. Grüner Bietgheimer. n.d.

Korbinian Aigner. Roter von Sich. n.d.

Korbinian Aigner. Straßdorfer Frauenbirne. n.d.

Korbinian Aigner. Späte Blutbirne. n.d.

Korbinian Aigner. Adams Apfel. n.d.

Korbinian Aigner (1885-1966), also known as the Apfelpfarrer (Apple Pastor), was a German priest and pomologist. Over course of his life, he created over 900 paintings of apples and pears, one hundred of which are included in the exhibition.

In the 1930s Aigner was an outspoken critic of the National Socialists and in 1939 was arrested and imprisoned in the concentration camp at Dachau. Throughout his imprisonment he was able to continue growing and developing apples, and he continued his cataloging practice. In 1945, he escaped and returned his parish, and farming, and painting, until his death in 1966.

Like a specter, the Holocaust haunts The Keeper. It haunts Aigner’s fruit portraits, it materializes suddenly in MM’s drawings of daily life as a prisoner of Auschwitz, it bleeds into Hannelore Baron’s constructions, and it inserts itself into the artist’s biography and photographs of children lost in the centerpiece project of the exhibition, Ydessa Hendeles’  Partners (The Teddy Bear Project) 2002. Catastrophe of different species haunts the galleries as well — death and decompositionhope and madness and the destruction of war — but the Holocaust seeps through the exhibition as a silent reminder that the absurdity of grand ordering systems is no trifling or benign or academic matter — it encompasses murder, slavery and genocide.

Aigner’s work lives on in another way. An apple variety developed by him, originally called KZ-3, but eventually renamed Korbiniansapfel in his honor, is still grown in Germany today. Saplings descended from a tree cultivated by Aigner at Dachau are available here.

This selection of cosmos-building projects, a minuscule fraction of the work included in the exhibition, provides examples of the type of strategies The Keeper presents that cause difficulties for art historical interpretation and critical analysis. Brian Wallis, in his Artforum review of The Keeper, writes that through the exhibition Gioni argues for “a view of culture that is all-inclusive, encyclopedic, iconophilic, canon-busting, and defiantly outside the mainstream. His keepers defy the art-world apartheid of privileged radicalism, the exclusionary system of controlled selectivity, and feigned meritocracy that today so convincingly distorts our perceptions of creativity and its uses.”7 Wallis, Brian. “The Keeper.” Artforum. October, 2016. 271. Wallis describes the strategies that the (so-called) art-world uses in its grand culture-building project, and uses stark terms to do so: apartheid, privilege, exclusion and control. The unpleasant insight Wallis shares is that culture is created through exclusion and barriers, it is a reductive and distorting enterprise. Cosmos-building, on the other hand, as The Keeper abundantly illustrates, works in another way altogether. Cosmos-building in its many incarnations is endlessly inclusive, forever incomplete, always becoming.8The anxiety this strategic contrast creates in some culture-builders is evident in the language of pathology — “hoarding,” “mania,” “compulsion,” “creep factor,” “weirdo,” —  that leaks into some reviews

Cosmos-building and culture-building work in contradictory ways and The Keeper puts this contradiction on institutional display.9Some 43 years ago, art historian Linda Nochlin describes the endless antagonism between the various incarnations of R/realisms and abstraction, as she sees it, in the art historical mode of high moralism. Indeed, the essay is entitled The Realist Criminal and the Abstract Law. In it, she describes the same contradictory forces at work in painting. She writes, “Whereas the nonrealist may work through distillation and exclusion, the realist mode implies enrichment and inclusion.” This is seen as R/realism’s fatal flaw, inclusion is a “lack of selectivity,” a sort of promiscuity which in turn leads to a existential “irrelevance.” She writes, “Irrelevance is indeed a prime feature of the intractable thereness of things as they are and as we experience them.” The Keeper presents an catalog of thousands of counterarguments to this fundamental art historical assumption — some objects, art history insists, because it has to, are better than others. While many writers discussing the exhibition stop short at its lush catalog of idiosyncrasy, Jerry Saltz sees through the strangeness and describes the underlying intellectual and academic apparatus that makes The Keeper seem so odd. If we look to the grand culture-building discipline of art history to help us understand The Keeper or help us give it meaning, we would be left sorely disappointed. As Saltz describes, current art history is (still) so rigorously linear, teleological, and parochial that is not of much use outside of itself. According to current notions of art history, Saltz writes, “Artists and isms follow one another in a Biblical begetting based on progress toward a goal to higher stage […] The problem is that anyone who doesn’t fall into this timeline is out of luck.”10Saltz, Jerry. “The Tyranny of Art History in Contemporary Art.” Vulture.com. September 12, 2016. Art history is so self-referential, so compulsively exclusionary that it has exhausted itself of any meaningful sense of vivacity or value. Saltz writes that art history is “dead already; it just doesn’t know it. […][Our art history] is Zombie Art History.”11Saltz.

Saltz calls out this sort of zombified academicism as a stiffened ideology both idiotic and imaginary, as a species of intellectual fundamentalism beneficial only to its practitioners, and no one else. It might be easy to dismiss Saltz’s cri du coeur as an anti-academic polemic, except that the academicians, art history’s practitioners themselves, also have trouble defending the discipline as actually relevant.

Collecting is cyclical, repetitive, human behavior. Repetition is at The Keeper’s core — each separate project relies on repetition’s peculiar power. In Hendeles’ Partners (The Teddy Bear Project) 2002, for example, the image of children and their teddy bears repeats and echoes three thousand times. Vanda Vieira-Schmidt’s ongoing Weltrettungsprojekt (World Rescue Project) is comprised of hundreds of thousands of her drawings, at times produced at a rate of hundreds per day, are meant as a means of producing a positive counterforce to demonic forces in the world. Ye Jinglu commemorated each year of his life, from 1907 until he died in 1968, with a visit to a photographer’s studio. The resulting portraits, lined up like signal flags, spell out the story of one man’s time-travel. There is a certain sense of melancholy that accompanies these photographs as we see Ye Jinglu’s maturation slowly slide into aging, and the implication of his project’s sudden end.

Many of our great thinkers have taken on the notion of repetition. Freud, of course, described the pathological aspect of repetition-as-compulsion, but Kierkegaard describes repetition as a condition of a fulfilled, meaningful life, requiring both courage and vision. He writes:

Just as [the Greeks] taught all knowledge is recollection, thus will modern philosophy teach that life itself is repetition. […] Repetition and recollection are the same movement, just in opposite directions, because what is recollected has already been and is thus repeated backwards, whereas genuine repetition is recollected forwards. Repetition, if it is possible, thus makes a person happy, while recollection makes him unhappy[…] He who wills repetition, he is a man, and the more emphatically he has endeavored to understand what this means, the deeper he is a human being. But he who does not grasp that life is repetition and that this is the beauty of life, he has condemned himself [to death.] He who chooses repetition, he lives.12Kierkegaard, Søren. Repetition and Philosophical Crumbs. Oxford University Press. 2009. 5-6.

Harry Smith. String Figure. n.d.

Harry Smith. String Figure. n.d.

Harry Smith. String Figure. n.d.

Kierkegaard’s apparent paradox — re-collecting forwards — in the end, is the engine of  The Keeper. Each project chooses, emphatically, repetition, as each one is pulled by melancholy, nostalgia and recollection. Each project operates, in its own individual way, along Kierkegaard’s eternal piston movement between melancholy and joy.

The exhibition includes a selection of string figures collected by Harry Smith (1923-1991), eminent shaman and famous collector of songs. In them he saw a universal, non-verbal language, but they could also serve as talismans for the the exhibition itself. Each one takes the simplest symbol for eternal cycle, a loop of string, and bends and weaves and knots it into more meaning, and then repeats that transformative magic over and over again. Human hands transform the material — first into the infinite loop and then into something else. Each figure is unique, and each figure is the same, individual and universal in microcosm, in continuous repetition. Like the string figures, each project in The Keeper weaves the base material world into something marvelous.

A lesson regarding art history lies here as well. Art history, as Saltz observes, sees its world linearly. Art history knows its problems are knotty, like a string figure. But rather than find meaning in the figure, art history seeks to undo the knot, pull out the weaving, and straighten the intricate loop into a single line. Then, and only then, can the discipline do its work. Art history can’t do what it does without a beginning and an end, a single line of inquiry, and a rigorous disregard of the marvelous.

— Michael Westfall

Notes   [ + ]

1. Borges, Jorge Luis. “John Wilkin’s Analytical Language (1942)” in Selected Non-Fictions. Eliot Weinberger, ed. New York: Penguin, 1999. 229-232. This is the passage that set Michel Foucault on the path to write The Order of Things.
2. Borges. 231.
3. Gioni, Massimiliano. “The Country of Last Things” in The Keeper, M. Gioni and N. Bell, eds. New York: New Museum, 2016. 10.
4. Gioni, 11.
5. I suspect it is the same black chaos that gnaws at the edges of Andrzej Stasiuk’s Tales of Galicia, a book of similar time and place as Rydet’s photographs.
6. A lovely tote emblazoned with a quote by Zofia Rydet, “Dzień w kotórym nie fotografuję, uważam za stracony.” (A day in which I don’t photograph is a day I consider lost.) is available from the Fundacja Sztuk Wizualnych (Foundation for Visual Arts) here.
7. Wallis, Brian. “The Keeper.” Artforum. October, 2016. 271.
8. The anxiety this strategic contrast creates in some culture-builders is evident in the language of pathology — “hoarding,” “mania,” “compulsion,” “creep factor,” “weirdo,” —  that leaks into some reviews
9. Some 43 years ago, art historian Linda Nochlin describes the endless antagonism between the various incarnations of R/realisms and abstraction, as she sees it, in the art historical mode of high moralism. Indeed, the essay is entitled The Realist Criminal and the Abstract Law. In it, she describes the same contradictory forces at work in painting. She writes, “Whereas the nonrealist may work through distillation and exclusion, the realist mode implies enrichment and inclusion.” This is seen as R/realism’s fatal flaw, inclusion is a “lack of selectivity,” a sort of promiscuity which in turn leads to a existential “irrelevance.” She writes, “Irrelevance is indeed a prime feature of the intractable thereness of things as they are and as we experience them.” The Keeper presents an catalog of thousands of counterarguments to this fundamental art historical assumption — some objects, art history insists, because it has to, are better than others.
10. Saltz, Jerry. “The Tyranny of Art History in Contemporary Art.” Vulture.com. September 12, 2016.
11. Saltz.
12. Kierkegaard, Søren. Repetition and Philosophical Crumbs. Oxford University Press. 2009. 5-6.

Ideas Are Scary

Ideas are scary

They come into this world ugly and messy

Ideas are frightening

Because they threaten what is known

They are the natural born enemy of the way things are

Yes, ideas are scary

And messy

And fragile

But under the proper care

They become something beautiful.

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This General Electric ad is now back on the air, and might leave you “mildly unsettled.” The petit truth here is that the world can indeed be a hostile place for new ideas. The grand truth of this strange little story is that beauty is not the only inhabitant of eye of the beholder, but beauty’s inverse — the repulsive — resides there as well. Idea enters the world as a hairy, innocent, woebegone allegory. He is not only an unheimlich twinned embodiment of both disgust and beauty, but also an embodiment of the potential of each of those qualities — both in him and in us. Once Idea undergoes the allegorical transformation, from abstract idea to the gritty world of (filmic) actuality, the hostility he encounters seems to emit from the visceral depths of his tormentors. The hate Idea endures is borne in reptilian-brain reflex.

Art trains us to overcome this reflex. To be able to realize the work of art, in both Panofsky’s and Sedlmayr’s sense, we are required to approach the work with the kindness of an open mind — a deliberate attitude of rigorous empathy, responsibility, and humility. Art history, on the other hand, requires no such effort. Art historians, generally, spend surprisingly little time in the presence of art, preferring, instead, the library. Digging up citations requires far more tenacity than it does tolerance.

There is an important lesson from, of all places, the military-industrial complex, for art historical disciplinarians and other brittle thinkers in this odd ad — ideas aren’t bad, it’s the resistance to them that is so ugly.

— Michael Westfall

The Sense of Humanity Has Not Yet Left Me

Erwin Panofsky’s essay entitled The History of Art as a Humanistic Discipline opens with a few words from a dying Emmanuel Kant. Just days before his death, the great philosopher rose trembling and uncertain, muttering incoherently to greet his physician, and wouldn’t sit until the doctor himself sat down. Only then Kant “permitted himself to be helped to his chair and, after having regained some of his strength, said, “Das Gefühl für Humanität hat mich noch nicht verlassen” — “The sense of humanity has not yet left me.”1Erwin Panofsky, “The History of Art as a Humanistic Discipline” (1939). Meaning in the Visual Arts: Papers in and on Art History. New York: Anchor Books, 1955. 1.  Panofsky cites E. A. C. Wasianski. Panofsky tells us that both men were moved, almost, to tears.

In this moment, Panofsky tells us Kant lifts the meaning of Humanität from mere social ritual to something far more significant — the proud and tragic consciousness of human dignity in the face of the “utter subjection to illness, decay and all that is implied in the word ‘mortality.'”2Panofsky. 1.

Panofsky then traces the history of this proud and tragic consciousness. In its classical form, humanitas sought not only to distinguish man from animal, but also moral man from feral and vulgar barbarity. In the Middle Ages, that antithesis was replaced with another, between God and Man. The Renaissance revived the classical duality, and what would become our concept of humanism is born with a doubled tension, and a doubled resolution. Panofsky writes:

It is from this ambivalent conception of humanitas that humanism was born. It is not so much a movement as an attitude which can be defined as the conviction of the dignity of man, based on both the insistence on human values (rationality and freedom) and the acceptance of human limitations (fallibility and frailty); from these two postulates result — responsibility and tolerance.3Panofsky. 2.

This attitude, Panofsky goes on to say, is then attacked by those groups which have a fundamental aversion to concepts of responsibility and tolerance — authoritarians, intellectual and political libertinists, determinists, and the “‘insectolatrists‘ who profess the all-importance of the hive, whether the hive be called group, class, nation or race.”4Panofsky. 3.

The humanist, Panofsky concludes, rejects these various flavors of authority, and respects tradition as something worthy of study, and, at times, restoration. The humanist is fundamentally an historian, looking at the past — with reason, humility, responsibility and tolerance — to create an intelligible, ordered cosmos of culture, just as the scientist seeks an intelligible, ordered cosmos of nature.

The work of art, Panofsky posits, provides a fundamental divergence between the scientific and humanistic cosmos-building practices. Because the work of art demands to be encountered aesthetically, it cannot be simply analyzed directly as an object in nature, but must first be re-enacted and re-created in the mind of the humanistic beholder. The beholder literally realizes the meaning of the work of art.5Panofsky. 14.

How the art historian does this separates him from the naïve viewer, the connoisseur, and the art theorist. To recreate his work of art, the art historian reads and acquires all knowledge possible about the work itself. This research helps him identify and reject his personal subjectivities, and to rigorously bear witness to the artistic (and cultural) “intention” of the work of art.6Panofsky. 22. The “scare quotes” are Panofsky’s.

But to do this work, and even formulate his questions, the art historian relies on the abstract work the art theorist. Panofsky necessarily turns to the German language to express the theorists’ goal as Kunstwissenschaftliche Grundbegriffe, or, loosely translated, a continually-becoming-interdisciplinary-system-of-conceptual-knowledge-of-art. Panofsky sees an organic relation between the art historian and art theorist, each dependent on the other in fundamental ways, and each cross-pollinating the other. Panofsky describes the relation with a magnificent mélange of metaphors:

…[T]he relation between the art historian and the art theorist may be compared to that between two neighbors who have the right of shooting over the same district, while one of them owns the gun and the other all the ammunition. Both parties would be well advised if they realized this condition of their partnership. It has rightly been said that theory, if not received at the door of an empirical discipline, comes through the chimney like a ghost and upsets the furniture. But it is no less true that history, if not received at the door of a theoretical discipline dealing with the same set of phenomena, creeps into the cellar like a horde of mice and undermines the groundwork.7Panofsky. 22.

Here, Panofsky writes in direct response to Sedlmayr’s Toward a Rigorous Study of Art, a work that he explicitly cites a few sentences before. Rather than considering Sedlmayr’s second order of art history as belonging to the discipline of art history, Panofsky gently pushes it aside as a separate discipline altogether.  He then describes art history’s fundamental dependence on that separate discipline with colorful word-pictures that reveal a certain penetration-anxiety. It is an anxiety that still haunts the discipline. For many American art historians, a guiding disciplinary preoccupation is the defense of art history from the shame of illegitimate influence and the stain of impure theoretical thought. The academy has not yet figured out how to rid itself of the ghosts in its chimney.

Panofsky would get over his anxieties, and would go on to construct one of the most enduring art theories of the last century, now far out of fashion.

 

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Humanism, however, is not just out of fashion, it is thoroughly disgraced. The problem is humanism’s congenital defect — classical humanitas sought to distinguish the moral homo humanus from a lesser type of human being, homo barbaritas. This distinction, and who gets to make it, disqualifies not only humanism, but for some, the entire Enlightenment project. From this tainted humanist seed racism, slavery, colonialism, imperialism, and the horrors of modern history grew and flourished. Humanism is blamed for creating the condition for barbarity, it is the perverse progenitor of victor and vanquished, of oppressor and oppressed.

To claim to be a humanist is to be backward, out of step, and stubbornly anti-progressive. To the average humanities professor humanism is seen as, at best, a naïve belief in fuzzy utopian universality, and at worst, a symptom of benighted privilege, ignorance and casual racism. In its ascendence, this critique of humanism has spilled beyond the bounds of the academy and into mass culture.

In a recent art history seminar investigating anti-Freudianism, Affect Theory, and Afro-Pessimist ethics, I asked my professor, a rising star in the identity politics game, about the eclipse of humanism. I fully expected the standard linear answer: in the face of the atrocity of twentieth-century history, and in an Oedipal struggle with existentialism, a new generation of European anti-humanist intellectuals emerged — Foucault, Deleuze, Derrida and the rest. “Continental” Theory was sucked into the American academy with a roar in the 1980s. That, in turn, gave a radical theoretical foundation for feminism, which in turn provided the model for queer theory, which begat academic theories of race — all of which flourish in the warm embrace of the progressive replacement of humanism — identity politics. Humanism is too old, too white, too male, and too European to be of much use in our new post-modern, post-human global reality. The few decrepit humanists still employed by the academy are dying out like the dinosaurs they are, and actually claiming to be a humanist now is a nostalgic affectation, like wearing spats — but racist and reactionary spats.

But that’s not the answer he gave. Instead, my professor, apparently approaching glee, responded:

“We won.”

Hooray! The Culture Wars are over! But I saw that in the wake of his victory my professor had created a militant and Manichean space, a black-and-white world populated by two categories of people — winners and losers.8Jodi Dean recently wrote about weaponized identity politics and its premise of continuing existing power structures, and its failed investment in “winners.” I saw that my professor, in his anti-humanist zeal, had done nothing other than to re-create, in miniature and caricature, a type of primal and brutal humanism he claims victory over. If the congenital defect of humanism is its teleological foundation — the ability to make the distinction of privilege between two types of humans — then does not a new worldview populated only with winners and losers repeat humanism’s original, divisive sin?

Yes, but the problem is even more tragic. This worldview does keep in place the structure of hierarchy that is humanism’s Achilles’ heel, but it simply inverts the agents — the once marginalized now are now able to marginalize. What is lost in this cartoon version of upturned humanism is the ambivalence at the core of Panofsky’s essay — the black-and-white world of identity politics has no room for shades of gray. In a world of winners and losers, notions of human dignity are secondary, and notions of human frailty and fallibility, antithetical. My professor’s identity politics then becomes a kind of monstrous born-again humanism, one that has slipped its moral moorings. Panofsky knew, back in 1939, that those who sought to divide the world along identitarian lines would have no use for the responsibility and tolerance that constitutes his humanism.

ding

At the time, I remember feeling somewhat sad for my professor. I felt sorry to have stirred up his hubris with a simple question, and I felt embarrassed for his blindness. I realized that he did not realize that the victory he claimed is no victory at all. Claiming victory over responsibility and tolerance is like claiming victory over the sun — it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to begin with, and leaves nothing but scorched earth in its wake.

Kasimir Malevich. Costume design for Victory Over the Sun: Enemy. 1913.

As I wrote the previous paragraph, I groped a bit for the right metaphor. What finally arrived in my mind was the title of a famously obscure Russian Futurist opera, Victory Over the Sun. The opera was created by a group of Russian avant-garde all-stars — Kruchenykh, Khlebnikov, Matyushin and Malevich — and it was first staged in Saint Petersburg in 1913, in the volatile and fertile period just before World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution. The opera thematizes instability, but not just instability qua instability —  it thematizes the instability of our very foundations: space, time, language, and sense itself. All of these, these artists tell us, are not fixed, they are not absolute. Each operate in complex rhythms and rhymes that we may not be able to see because we are in them. Art makes these invisibilities visible. The humanities make these invisibilities intelligible. From Plato to Nietzsche,  the great minds of our Western tradition have shown us, patiently, over and over again, that we live in a  world where there are no absolute victors. Rather, we are caught in an eternal rising up and rising down, driven by nature, decay, fear, and our own predations as we seek to be, however fleetingly, “winners.”

— Michael Westfall

Notes   [ + ]

1. Erwin Panofsky, “The History of Art as a Humanistic Discipline” (1939). Meaning in the Visual Arts: Papers in and on Art History. New York: Anchor Books, 1955. 1.  Panofsky cites E. A. C. Wasianski.
2. Panofsky. 1.
3. Panofsky. 2.
4. Panofsky. 3.
5. Panofsky. 14.
6. Panofsky. 22. The “scare quotes” are Panofsky’s.
7. Panofsky. 22.
8. Jodi Dean recently wrote about weaponized identity politics and its premise of continuing existing power structures, and its failed investment in “winners.”

Toward a Rigorous Study of Art

The gentleman in the center of this photograph, obscured behind a cloud of pipe smoke, is Hans Sedlmayr. In 1931, he published a methodological manifesto entitled Zu einer strengen Kunstwissenschaft (Toward a Rigorous Study of Art, available to English readers in the essential Vienna School Reader).

Sedlmayr posits two orders of Art History. The first is the most familiar and agreeable to art historians. Using documentary evidence, the first order establishes the facts surrounding the work of art and its production — who produced it, who paid for it, when it was produced, and where. These facts, Sedlmayr reminds us, are dependent on the accidental presence of documentation, and are always fragmentary.1Sedlmayr, Hans. “Toward a Rigorous Study of Art” in The Vienna School Reader. Christopher Wood, ed. and trans. (New York: Zone Books, 2000), 134.

Scientific, documentary proof, as rigorous as it may seem, leaves immense gaps of knowledge. These gaps, Sedlmayr argues, can be bridged by an Art History of another sort, one that seeks to understand the work of art itself, and the traces of its production which it contains. The second order studies not just form, but form as motive of a concrete “gestalt.”2Sedlmayr. 135-6. The second order can answer not just “what?” but also the “why?” that provides art’s core.

For Sedlmayr, this second order is the kernel of a “genuine” study of art. The first order leaves the art object dead and lifeless, and leaves Art History as a deep disappointment. He writes:

You come from some robust, lively thing that has affected you, look up the existing scholarship about it, you read and read […], and afterward you have the distinct feeling that you have accumulated a great deal, yet it amounts to nothing. Somehow that which had seemed most important and most essential — the heart of the matter — has gotten lost in the process.3Sedlmayr. 138.

As the first order of Art History reveals its limits, the second order, seemingly speculative and subjective, offers its own problems. Will it veer into emotional, arbitrary, incomplete, unverifiable, belletristic nonsense? It doesn’t have to, Sedlmayr argues. He suggests a number of methodological strategies to establish a rigorous, genuine, and complete study of art, many of which seem like common sense scholarship. No arguing from the individual case to a generality. Comparisons are the antidote to speculation. Collaborate and cooperate with other fields.

The notions of artistic attitude and object world are fundamental concepts of his theory. The appropriate artistic attitude is not just a way of seeing, or a theoretical “reading,” but a mode of a properly sensitized viewer experiencing art with his full perceptive abilities — physical, psychological and intellectual. Isn’t this merely subjective musing? No. Sedlmayr writes:

“On the contrary: just as works of art are repeatedly re-created and formed anew by viewing subjects, each work of art is itself, in its totality, an objective reality, a separate object world that can be examined and accepted like any other concrete reality and that can be penetrated through contemplation or conceptualization.”4Sedlmayr. 145.

Sedlmayr’s method would become known as New Vienna School Strukturanalyse, which seeks to find meaning in not only the “structures” of the artwork itself, but structures within the object world the artwork inhabits, and the relationships within. For example, Sedlmayr’s method seek to find the transcendent character of the work of art. In other words, the artwork indicates other, external manifestations of its own “formal organization.” The orientation of artwork is its temporality. Sedlmayr writes that each artwork “carries within itself traces of its prehistory and the seeds of future transformations.”5Sedlmayr. 170. The radical kernel of these concepts is that they operate within the object world, not through external academic art historical constructs such as artistic influence and period style.

Sedlmayer’s Strukturanalyse requires a rigorous empathy for the work of art, a doubled perspective, and an acquiescence to the schitzophrenic possibility of multiple realities, and then the preference of one outside our own comfortable, subjective self. It sounds impossible, or somewhat daffy. But, I think Sedlmayer gets close to Art History’s tragic core, its inability to fully embrace the object of its study. The avoidance of this tragedy is one of the engines of the discipline, and repelling ideas such as Sedlmayer’s — contingency, nonlinearity, insight — is a driving force. Sedlmayr’s theory is still radical, still marginalized. (Though, there is an additional reason for that.)

ding

In a recent seminar, we read what I think is an example of a method that hews close to Sedlmayer’s Strukturanalyse. The essay, published in 2011 by Debora Silverman, concerned Belgian Art Nouveau and found in its form and materials a collective, cultural anxiety — a Gestalt — brought out by the horrors of Belgium’s rapacious colonial rule of the Congo Free State.6Silverman, Debora L. “Art Nouveau, Art of Darkness: African Lineages of Belgian Modernism, Part I,” West 86th 18, no. 2 (Fall-Winter 2011): 139-81

The author upped the “structure stakes” over the course of the entire essay. First, she analyzed the source materials of Belgian decoration, then she found the transcendent character of the sinuous Belgian forms pointing to the tendrils of the rubber plant, a source of vast wealth which became a pretext for atrocity. And, finally, she found further formal resonance in the tremor of the colonial lash. It was a thrilling read.

None of these insights came with enough documentary evidence for our dear professor. He told us that the essay had severe problems, none of her connections between art and the art’s “world” could be proven. Entertaining, but a failure as Art History, he determined. He asked for our opinions and agreement murmured through the room. Then I asked him what would happen if we tried to write something that aspired to this essay. He responded, “You would be shot.”

“You’re kidding, right?” I asked.

Before I got the words out, he responded by repeating himself, slowly and impatiently, as one does when addressing an insolent child. “You. Would. Be. Shot.”

And that’s how I got a venerable, provincially notable Professor of the History of Architecture to articulate a minor murder fantasy in class one day. Remember, art history students: insight is treason, a capital offense.

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No discussion of Sedlmayr can be had without acknowledging his membership in the Nazi Party from 1933 to 1945. Sedlmayr’s biography and the problems it presents to art historians is discussed in Christopher Wood’s introduction to The Vienna School Reader. Sedlmayr compounded his problems with the publication of Verlust der Mitte in 1948. That book, published under the title Art In Crisis here, has to be on the top of any top 10 list of most reviled art books. Ask Benjamin Buchloh.

For our purposes, Sedlmayr’s biography should provide one important lesson, one unfortunate truth about the academy: being an art historian does not necessarily make you a good person.

— Michael Westfall

Notes   [ + ]

1. Sedlmayr, Hans. “Toward a Rigorous Study of Art” in The Vienna School Reader. Christopher Wood, ed. and trans. (New York: Zone Books, 2000), 134.
2. Sedlmayr. 135-6.
3. Sedlmayr. 138.
4. Sedlmayr. 145.
5. Sedlmayr. 170.
6. Silverman, Debora L. “Art Nouveau, Art of Darkness: African Lineages of Belgian Modernism, Part I,” West 86th 18, no. 2 (Fall-Winter 2011): 139-81

Scab Trashmen

Art History’s long, slow slide towards oblivion made the news again recently. Back in 2014, the UK’s Education Secretary announced new, more rigorous and demanding standards for arts education. Educators then created and approved a new, globally inclusive syllabus expanding the course beyond its previous limits of Western art. This presented an insurmountable problem. The board that oversees the exams reported that they could not find enough specialist examiners to cover the newly expanded subject, and, besides, only 839 students took the exam this year. (By way of comparison, 43,000 sat the Art and Design exams.) Confronted with a crisis of both supply and demand, last month the board axed the Art History A-levels altogether.

This, in turn, led to much hand-wringing. Those who cared valiantly defended Art History as something valuable, something more than just a class-appropriate avocation for posh girls. As one wit has it, “There could be no clearer example of the extent to which we have lost our way than the abandonment of art history and archaeology. Unless perhaps the new education secretary, Justine Greening, were to go on a long symbolic quest to seek the mythical holy grail and, having found the talismanic object, ancient vessel of incalculable wisdom and understanding, shat in it.”

On this side of the ocean, the crisis in Art History takes a far less operatic tenor. Here, Art History is just the prime example of useless academicism, as President Obama once glibly noted. In response to this off-the-cuff slight, the College Art Association defended an education in the humanities, reminding the President that “It is worth remembering that many of the nation’s most important innovators, in fields including high technology, business, and even military service, have degrees in the humanities. Humanities graduates play leading roles in corporations, engineering, international relations, government, and many other fields where their skills and creating (sic) thinking play a critical role.”

While this may be true, this argument is not even close to a defense of Art History. At best, it is an oblique defense of Art History professorsWhat is missing in the CAA response is any indication of Art History’s telos. Through the testimony of its own practitioners, Art History is reduced to a discipline in search of a purpose.

ding

I find myself falling into this image of old New York. My mind’s eye is cast back a hundred years. A gent in a bowler hat stares out with Stenburg eyes — a blur, a ghost, a rushing time-flâneur. It’s the animals that dominate this frame, the equine magnificence of the twinned grays – all muscle, bone and hoof – their majesty reigned by tack and sullen men. A boy looks out, witness to our witnessing. The image is hyperreal, uncannily precise, a function of the magic of glass and silver, handmade optics and albumen.

I sense a tension. Is it there in the men’s faces, their awkward bearing, their obliviousness to the camera, their attention paid to other, more pressing concerns?

ding

 

garbage_strike_crowd

A second frame from that day, from a vantage across the street, shows a hectic scene. A crowd has gathered. The garbage men and their horses are a spectacle, the target of a potential mob, and the police are on hand to keep the peace. In the center of the frame, an act of kindness, my punctum: a man in the crowd reaches up to pat a horse behind its ear, whispering to it, calming the animal amidst the nervous, hostile air. A garbage strike threw the city of New York into chaos almost exactly one hundred and five years ago, a forgotten moment in my city’s history. In November, 1911, thousands of street cleaners and ashmen walked off the job. Mountains of rotting garbage choked the city streets, and hundreds of strikebreakers were brought in to clean up. Riots erupted across Manhattan, bottles and bricks rained down on the strikebreakers and their horses from tenement rooftops, bonfires burned in the streets, and a child was killed in a fracas on E. 107th Street, run over by a garbage cart as the driver whipped his horse to escape the projectiles.

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Like the striking garbagemen, art historians, it seems to me, have walked off the job. Whether rampant careerism and the attendant willful mediocrity that produces, or brittle ideology and the attendant willful blindness that produces, or the congenital intellectual deformities produced by inbred academicism, or creative malaise, or simple exhaustion, or some toxic cocktail of the preceding is the cause, art historians have not been taking out their garbage, so to speak.

The dreadful state of Art History reveals so much opportunity! The scholars have left treasures amongst the trash, so I’ll shovel through it. I’ll be Art History’s scab trashman.

— Michael Westfall

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