Archive for February, 2015

Monuments of The Cubist Struggle

Posted: February 5, 2015 in Uncategorized

Here are images to help you read the ‘pasted-paper’ essay by Clement Greenberg. For Wednesday, let’s try to read the Greenberg essays we don’t manage to cover today. If we don’t manage to get through everything this week, we’ll just have to be comfortable with that. Good luck!

–Clement Greenberg, “The Pasted-Paper Revolution” (1947)


In 1910 Braque had already inserted a very graphic nail with a sharp cast shadow in a picture otherwise devoid of graphic definitions and cast shadows, Still-life with Violin and Palette, in order to interpose a kind of photographic space between the surface and the dimmer, fragile illusoriness of the Cubist space which the still-life itself – shown as a picture within a picture – inhabited.


And something similar was obtained by the structural delineation of a loop of rope in the upper left margin of the Museum of Modern Art’s Man with a Guitar of 1911.


In that same year Braque introduced capital letters and numbers stenciled in trompe-l’oeil in paintings whose motifs offered no realistic excuse for their presence. The intrusions, by their self-evident, extraneous and abrupt flatness, stopped the eye at the literal, physical surface of the canvas in the same way that the artist’s signature did; here it was no longer a questions of interposing a more vivid illusion of depth between surface and Cubist space, but one of specifying the very real flatness of the picture plan so that everything else shown on it would be pushed into illusioned space by force of contrast.


It was toward the same end the Picasso and Braque began, in 1912, to mix sand and other foreign substance with their paint; the granular surface achieved thereby called direct attention to the tactile reality of the picture.


A little later [Braque] made his first collage, Fruit Bowl, by pasting three strips of imitation wood-grain wallpaper to a sheet of drawing paper on which he then charcoaled a rather simplified Cubist still-life and some trompe-l’oeil letters. Cubist space had by this time become even shallower, and the actual picture surface had to be identified more emphatically than before if the illusion was to be detached from it.. Now the corporeal presence of the wallpaper pushed the lettering itself into illusioned depth by force of contrast. . . . The strips, the lettering, the charcoal lines and the white paper begin to change places in depth with one another, and a process is set up in which every part of the picture takes its turn in occupying every plane, whether real or imagined, in it. The imaginary planes are all parallel to the one another; their effective connection lies in their common relation to the surface; wherever a form on one plane slants or extends into another it immediately spring forward. The flatness of the surface permeates the illusion, and the illusion itself reasserts the flatness. The effect is to fuse the illusion with the picture plane without the derogation of either — in principle.


Sometime in 1912 [Picasso] cut out and folded a piece of paper in the shape of a guitar and glued and fitted other pieces of paper and four taut strings to it. A sequence of flat surface on different planes in actual space was created to which there adhered only the hint of a pictorial surface. The originally affixed elements of collage had, in effect, been extruded from the picture plane — the sheet of drawing paper or the canvas — to make a bas-relief. But it was ‘constructed,’ not a sculpted, bas-relief, and it founded a new genre of sculpture. . . . Not for nothing did the sculptor constructor Julio Gonzalez call it the new art of ‘drawing’ in space.’


Cubism, in the hands of its inventors achieved a new, exalted and transfigured kind of decoration by reconstructing the flat picture surface with the very means of its denial. They started started with the illusion and arrived at a quasi-abstract literalness.

With [Juan] Gris it was the reverse. As he himself explained, he started with flat and abstract shapes to which he then fitted recognizable three-dimensional images. . . . He used his pasted papers and trompe-l’oeil textures and lettering to assert flatness all right; but he almost always sealed the flatness inside the illusion of depth by placing images rendered with sculptural vividness on the nearest plane of the picture, and often on the rearmost plane too. . . . Instead of the seamless fusion of the decorative with the spacial structure of illusion which we get with the collages of the other two masters, there is an alternation, a collocation, of the decorative and the illusion and if their relationship ever goes beyond that, it is more liable to be one of confusion rather than fusion. Gris’s collages have their merits, but they have been over-praised.


That point, as I see it, was to restore and exalt decoration by building it, by endowing self-confessedly flat configurations with a pictorial content, an autonomy like that hitherto obtained through illusion alone. Elements essentially decorative in themselves were used not to adorn but to identify, locate, construct; and in being so used, to create works of art in which decorativeness was transcended or transfigured in a monumental unity. Monumental, in fact, is the one word is choose to describe Cubism’s preeminent quality.


STUDENT: I feel like both positive and negative criticism should be freely expressed as felt by the individual. Clap or don’t after a performance, it’s your decision. Just let everything be done in moderation.

TEACHER: These are objections one hears time and again: Who is to say? What makes him the judge? Doesn’t everybody get to decide for himself?

These questions, and the anxiety of which they are unmistakable expressions, are highly symptomatic and emblematic of the condition of being modern. We no longer live in an age of God-ordained authorities. Or, if we do continue to live, as individuals, in a world of God-centered world, we can’t help but find ourselves hopelessly out of touch with the ideas and culture of the current moment. Consequently, nobody knows what to think or even feel anymore, at least not in public. And this profound state of anxiety is reflected – at least among those who actually continue to care about genuine culture – in our disturbing inability to enjoy ourselves thoroughly and unselfconsciously. Applause, for all it presents itself as the most enthusiastic praise, ought properly to be seen for what it actually is, a noisy and vulgar eruption of mass insecurity. It is the surest sign that an audience has no idea what it just experienced. In a culture composed of a constant stream of pseudo-experiences, applause is the flood of noise which surges forth to fill the disconcerting void of genuine experience. Here, Eliot and Glenn Gould seem to agree with Freud.


Eliot’s attempt to establish criteria of judgment, as well as a canon of exemplary works, is intended to provide a remedy for this anxiety. And the key to the effectiveness of that remedy is that it must offer a set of standing paradigms with reference to which one work of art can be judged intrinsically more successful than another, as well as a set of objective operations in terms of which the creation of a work of art can be mapped. In the absence of any such objectivity, Eliot argues, the only standard of judgment we are left with is brute consensus, popularity.

Samuel Johnson is, for T. S. Eliot, the classic proponent of moderation. Though this evaluation is correct, we should simultaneously recall that popularity is Johnson’s standard of judgment. Shakespeare is great, he argues, because more people can relate to his works than any one else’s; hence, Shakespeare must best represent universal human nature. In other words, Johnson’s criterion for the judgment of artistic excellence is a matter of averages. The paradox in this should not be lost on us: excellence = mediocrity. This takes for granted the mass’s response to the object, by assuming that common sense is genuinely sensible. Whereas even a cursory examination of history will teach us that the masses have hardly made judicious decisions. If anything, the masses have been subject to constant shifts of opinion, based on little more than rumor, wild conjecture and immediate sensation. Certainly, free and open elections have hardly guaranteed with consistency the best of all possible leaders. With a few notable exceptions, it would in fact appear that the very first qualification for elected office is to be unexceptional, mediocre.

Further, the opinion of the masses, or the random individual, says virtually noting about the object itself. Most judgments we encounter – as Eliot insists, judgment comes a natural to us as breathing – regrettably lack any articulated criteria of selection or rejection, other than the fact that the person in question “just so totally loves” Shakespeare.

If pressed, persons may say they enjoy Shakespeare’s characters. But these characters are only one aspect of Shakespeare’s total art. Further, this offers no means of explaining why Shakespeare’s most popular characters tend to be scoundrels? What, Eliot would ask, is the difference between liking a persons in real life and liking a character in a play? Are liking person and liking characters even the same kind of liking at all? Is there really a difference between art and life, and if so, what is it? These, and others, are all questions which Eliot believes have been left fundamentally unanswered, by the culture in general and by Samuel Johnson in particular, who as a man of the Enlightenment, understands quality art to distinguish itself primarily by its lack of errors. Shakespeare’s verses, like his plots, are “grammatically correct.” Good art, according to Johnson’s commonsense mode of thinking, should always shun extremes, be ‘reasonable’ and show ‘moderation’.

British Actor John Garrick as McBeth

Notice, though, Eliot’s great interest in and admiration for the Metaphysical Poets. It’s not only that these poets are willing to make errors, or stray as far as possible from everyday patterns of thinking and speaking. But, indeed, the very peculiarities and deviations from standard thought and speech are these poets’ most basic virtues. But nobody speaks or thinks like Metaphysical Poets in daily pedestrian life, one might insist. And this precisely is why Eliot considers them great. Because they are blessedly free of the conventions of daily life and the perceived need for personal consistency (what Emerson called the “hobgoblin of little minds”), they are able to produce works which can be considered genuine art, and ought to be judged superior to the vast majority of human fabrications. Because these literary artifacts exhibit thought and feeling working together at the highest energy level, they reveal not just the normal functioning of a typical human mind but rather the vast array of operations which are possible for the human mind, per se. In this respect, Poetry, as Eliot clearly indicates, approaches Psychology. Though Eliot’s psychology will be one which radically rejects Positivism’s reduction of all human experience to mere aggregates of ‘units of sensation’ to be recorded and modeled in laboratory psychology. For Eliot sees this sort of science as the psychological equivalent of capitalism’s reduction of millions of individual lives to mere ‘human resources’ and individual lives to a loose mass of discrete and mobile units of labor to be bought and sold, like any other commodity, according to the law of supply and demand.


In particular, Eliot understanding of poetry approximates the psychological investigations of Harvard professor William James, one of the most distinguished and influential intellectuals in all of American history. James’s great contention, which flew in the face of the experimental psychology which prevailed in his own day (Helmholz, Fechner, Wundt), was that laboratory testing, statistical analysis and functional mapping of mental activity only serve to show how the statistically average person thinks, and this only under the most narrow and artificial of conditions. Such research might possibly give us some insight into how conformists, prisoners and the institutionalized think and behave, but it says almost nothing about how truly powerful and exemplary minds and bodies function when operating at the very highest level of energy or in a state of (semi-)autonomy. For this reason, James turns away from the statistically average person in his search for what is most essential in human thinking and experience, and instead turns to the great eccentrics.


In particular, James turns, against the current of the day, to the lives and writings of religious persons. James, in a masterful series of lectures delivered at Harvard, shows little interest in the conformist lives of average believers but rather focuses his attention on the great non-conformists in religious history, those ‘visionary’ individuals who founded either new religions or religious movements, or those saintly individuals who bound themselves to an arbitrary law and lived life extravagantly and exclusively on their own eccentric terms, with the least amount of compromise or moderation. It is these individual, James argues, and not experimental psychology which show actual human nature and potential.