Archive for February, 2018

This is all really just curator code for “I’m more woke than you.” A better definition of “late liberalism” in the art world may be tenured and professional curators and academics ignoring the emergencies and needs of artists in their backyards … and instead traveling the world to troubled hot spots like concerned anchormen and anchorwomen to bring back “interventions” and art that supposedly “sabotages” things.

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It’s hard to overestimate he significance of photography in the work (and life) of critic Susan Sontag, perhaps one of the 20th century’s most photographed women. (Sontag spent the final years of her life in a long-term relationship with noted celebrity photographer Annie Liebovitz, who documented her demise from cancer.) To elucidate this subject it might be valid to refer to the work of French art historian, novelist and statesman André Malraux – a figure whose ideas we’ll soon see critiqued in the comparatively recent writings of art historian Douglas Crimp.

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André Malraux with his “Museum Without Walls,” 1950

One of Malraux’s very first texts, a 1922 preface to an exhibition catalog, already presents this notion of art as a vast semiotic system, a multiple chorus of meaning. In it Malraux had written: “We can feel only by comparison. He who knows Andromaque or Phedre will gain a better idea of the French genius by reading A Midsummer Night’s Dream than by reading all the other tragedies by Racine.

– Rosalind E. Krauss

In particular, one thinks of Malraux’s concept of the “Museum without Walls”. Taking the form of an enormous book, Voices of Silence, this museum was more properly to be understood as a strictly ideal space in which art works from multiple cultures and historical periods would be reduced to weightless and isolated photographic images, thus allowing for a free-association and comparison of a vast catalog of works in various media. Not that it makes strict sense, but my impression is that Wimsatt & Beardsley’s criticism is essentially an similar attempt to reduce all poems to pure data, disembodied word images.

Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre, Che Guevara

If you think about it, photography, which reduces all of life and culture to documents, presents itself as the most anonymous, intentionless and affectless medium – that medium which, even more than language was for Shelley, is no medium at all, and consequently the very best medium to function as the “universal” medium through which to convert a host of culturally specific works of art into to a large-scale display of “global” culture. Photography converts the work of art into a sign, and the sign, like the commodity in Marx, obeys the law of universal equivalency and exchangeability. Or so Jean Baudrillard taught in his For A Critique of The Political Economy of The Sign.

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Generation Terror or Stupor?

Posted: February 17, 2018 in Uncategorized

Delaney Tarr, a high school senior, cannot remember a time when she did not know about school shootings.

So when a fire alarm went off inside Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and teachers began screaming “Code red!” as confused students ran in and out of classrooms, Ms. Tarr, 17, knew what to do. Run to the safest place in the classroom — in this case, a closet packed with 19 students and their teacher.

“I’ve been told these protocols for years,” she said. “My sister is in middle school — she’s 12 — and in elementary school, she had to do code red drills.”

This is life for the children of the mass shooting generation. They were born into a world reshaped by the 1999 attack at Columbine High School in Colorado, and grew up practicing active shooter drills and huddling through lockdowns. They talked about threats and safety steps with their parents and teachers. With friends, they wondered darkly whether it could happen at their own school, and who might do it.

Now, this generation is almost grown up. And when a gunman killed 17 people this week at Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland, Fla., the first response of many of their classmates was not to grieve in silence, but to speak out. Their urgent voices — in television interviews, on social media, even from inside a locked school office as they hid from the gunman — are now rising in the national debate over gun violence in the aftermath of yet another school shooting.

Most of you are no more than a year or two older than this student and would still have been in high school less than ten moths ago.

Cameron Kasky is a 17-year-old junior at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. He and his brother Holden survived Wednesday’s school shooting at their Parkland, Florida, high school.

The Artist Is Not Absent

Posted: February 15, 2018 in Uncategorized

It may be quite fair, by some standards (say, Rosenberg’s), to assert that Jackson Pollock was the beginning of performance art. However, the world’s foremost performance artist today is Marina Abramović. As this article suggests, her path to the topic was hardly an easy one. Indeed, her entire life and struggle to surive and prosper may be well be seen as one long performance. If this were so, it would put Abramović in league with modern choreographers such as Pina Bausch. I have the recent documentaries on both artists. I would highly encourage you to watch either.

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Culture of the highest order is of one of the most fragile achievements of humanity. It does not simply emerge on its own but requires constant vigilance and nurturing if it is to endure. It is for this reason that culture, in virtually every society we have ever known, has always been the province of the wealthy and leisured, and those few talented and determined individuals for whom the wealthy and leisured are willing to act as patrons. Those forced to work for their survival – peasants, factory laborers, bourgeois types, and even academics, who these days are also worked to death – simply don’t have the available means whereby to cultivate a genuine sense of discernment. Increasingly, Greenberg adds, even the ruling classes, now that work and leisure have become ever more distinct from one another, are becoming excessively addicted to work. And the result of this mania for work is the impoverishment of leisure time.

This cannot be otherwise than the case in a capitalist society, because competition, which is a fundamental component of that system, requires that everyone attempt to get ahead of everyone else. The moment anyone relaxes in any aspect of the total process of production, that person can rest assured that the competition will gain the upper hand. Capitalism, by definition, must constantly expand into new markets, creep into and colonize ever more minute areas of private life. Leisure time, to the extent it exists at all anymore, increasingly has come to mean idle time, those remaining moments in life when we are too tired to do anything other than chill out with cheap beer and stare at the TV. Who today would ever consider spending not just a couple of hours but their weekend or summer vacation studying difficult philosophy texts or doing a detailed comparison of the Picasso and Braque? Everyone today, regardless of their class, is equally exhausted (and if someone is not exhausted – which increasingly the new state of nature – we have products which, either sooner or later, will make them that way). Today, everybody is equally determined, either inwardly or outwardly, simply to escape any immediate encounter with hard reality. The human organism, if not the muscles then certainly the brain (Greenberg mentions this explicitly) is simply too tired. And so we reach not even for a decent wine but instead a cold, watery “beer”. Culture, in general, is in a state of danger.

The genuine danger, at least for Greenberg, is that we will lapse back into a state of utter barbarism, interested only in fulfilling our most instinctual needs and desires. This we might this call a lapse back into animal nature, which for Greenberg would be something quite distinct from “human nature”. Genuine culture, valid culture, can exist only on a higher, properly abstract level. Human consciousness certainly can and does evolve, just as the human body evolves. The problem both Greenberg and Eliot identify is that technology, most recently in the form of large-scale industry, is evolving far more rapidly than are either the human organism or human consciousness. Modern humanity is drained by his work and alienated from genuinely meaningful activity. The understand this, one only needs to look at the woeful state of contemporary higher eduction. The name of just one of the symptoms of this new set of relations of production is Boredom – something which Greenberg claims is a relatively recent invention. Capitalism’s cheap and easy remedy for this is Kitsch.


Eliot’s solution to the problem, which Greenberg attacks in “The Plight of Culture” is call for a return to an earlier pre-industrial age. Greenberg finds this highly problematic for all the reasons we mentioned in class. The masses simply would not allow it, and the leaders we have today do not dare contradict the will of the masses. Look, for instance, at the majority of candidates now making bids for the presidency, and their dire fear of suggesting they place any degree of credulity in the conclusions of the best modern science. Further, history, which in the final analysis is the result of overall economic development, simply does not go backwards. Greenberg’s response to what he deems the ‘callowness’ of Eliot is to argue that technological revolutions have always caused social crises in their earliest phases, though he argues that with time these crises do work themselves out.

The role of formal experimentation under the present phase of economic and technological development, which for Greenberg amounts to Capitalism going through its death throes, is not to produce a style of art which will be appropriate to all people in all places and at all times, but rather to produce a style of art which for the present moment does not debase itself to the level of Kitsch. As I said in class, we do not know what kind of art the new society of the future will bring. The material conditions under which it would be possible to know that do not yet exist. In the future it may once again be possible realistically to depict the human form in a painting without that image inevitably functioning as a mere illustration, or unavoidably reminding us of an ad for outlandishly overpriced brandname underwear. The future, for Greenberg, remains open here.

Greenberg does allow that a new kind of art, possibly realist in style, may emerge. But this can only happen after industry develops to a point at which we have a classless society, one in which work, and indeed consumption (here, once again a kind of intellectual and bodily labor), has actually become interesting to us again. This is not a nostalgic return to folk culture – at least Greenberg does not think so – but it does bear a resemblance to folk culture insofar as artworks under this new system, will, like folk art, be collective productions resulting from a synthesis of work and play. This, as far as the early Greenberg is concerned, is one of the first signs of cultural decadence, the replacement of great schools of art by the occasional exceptional individual.

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As for all new art arising in rebellion against older forms, Greenberg will not argue that this is entirely the case. He will say instead that art, in our own culture at least, has developed as a result of artists’ need to identify and work within the limitations of any given medium. Rather than offering us a million things to process at once – which is precisely what the multi-tasking we do at work today offers us – great art strives to focus our attention on one task at a time, by appealing to only one of our sense at a time. This is the ‘purity’ Greenberg mentions in his essay “Towards a Newer Laöcoon,” and which he insists Kitsch is bent on destroying. Genuine art will progress insofar as it is able to break free from external and pathological influences and emerge as simply what it is. Greenberg, then, draws a very hard and fast line between true art and junk, and insists, in the final analysis, a person likes either one or the other. Further, he will insist that most
stuff passing itself off today as art is in fact junk. Greenberg does not say that it is always easy to tell the difference between the two, precisely because some junk is produced by people with real talent. We call these persons “sell outs”. Further, the few artists who spend all their time working to produce something which isn’t Kitsch don’t always tend – and this should surprise no one – to be particularly good at marketing themselves. Whereas producers of Kitsch, who invariably work for large industry, one way or another, inevitably have vast armies of PR and marketing experts who specialize in nothing but the selling of product. Consequently, junk insinuates its ways into all areas of our lives, just a Greenberg said, and the available opportunities for the appreciation of genuine art become daily fewer.

Last thing I’ll say about Greenberg – and this is crucial, if only to keep the historical record straight – is that his view of things changes over the years. I won’t go into all the details, but do note these. Sometime after WWII Greenberg begins to abandon his dogged optimism with regard to the possibility of human progress. Whereas in the 30’s his commitment to Marxism expressed itself in the belief that there was no such thing as human nature, by the time the ’50s roll around, Greenberg is arguing strenuously in favor of transcendental categories of aesthetic experience, and the absolute value of certain works of abstract art. In a word, the Marxist has become a solitary idealist. Why? The answer to this question is complex. One possible reason is that Greenberg suddenly felt a renewed allegiance to Humanism after the horrors of the war. He may also have lost his faith in deliverance through technology. From a more negative perspective, perhaps Greenberg was seduced by the power of his own analytical skills. Or, perhaps he became demoralized when he saw Capitalism’s refusal to fail according to Marx’s predictions. Most cynically, perhaps Greenberg became seduced by the money and prestige to be gained by trading art in an market which for the very first time was beginning to buy and sell works of art for millions of dollars – a condition Rosenberg deplores. This outrageous practice, a shock which now no longer shocks us, is something which NEVER was the case before the ’60s, the moment in history during which today’s technologically sophisticated and highly bureacratic multi-national corporations – think IBM – first emerge. Nor, prior to this time, did it ever make sense to anyone to invest in difficult art. Sure, some millionaires collected it; but they didn’t buy it on sites like the one linked here (artfacts.net), which thinly veils itself as an educational resource when in fact it functions as nothing more than a brokerage that may as well be selling real estate or barrels of crude oil.

Anyhow, it’s only during the Cold War that Greenberg shifts from being highly influential to downright notorious. If you want to read about this shift in greater detail, here’s the book to check out of the library.

NYS

Joan Mitchell
(1925 – 1992)

The Popular Avant-Garde

Posted: February 14, 2018 in Uncategorized




I DORMIENTI (The Sleepers)
Brian Eno
Studio Album, released in 1999

I Dormienti is an ambient installation album from British musician Brian Eno and Italian artist Mimmo Paladino (“a lost city”) released in 1999 by Opal.

The Paladino exhibition was in the form of drawings and terracotta sculptures – about 30 reclining figures with about 20 attendant crocodiles. The publicity notice said of it “In the centre of a labyrinth of tunnels, Paladino will create an installation of primordial life forms that will be accompanied by Eno’s unique sound and light production”.

“One of the most extraordinary, beautiful,
and original works of art that I know of.”
– Susan Sontag


Jean-Luc Godard’s Vivre Sa Vie


The Revolution Will Be Advertised

Posted: February 14, 2018 in Uncategorized

One year before Rosenberg’s essay on Action Painting.

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Jackson Pollock Makes A Painting,
a film by Kenneth Noland (1950)

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Cecil Beaton Takes A Photo
Vogue Magazine (1951)

Constructivism

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Vladmir Tatlin
Counter Relief (1915)


The first formulation of socialist realism was made by Andrei Zhdanov in August 1934 at the first All-Union Congress of Soviet Writers. Although his speech was aimed primarily at writers, it was also applicable to the other branches of the arts. The obligations incumbent on cultural producers, whom Stalin had called upon to become ‘engineers of human souls’, included the demand that they ‘depict life faithfully’, while showing ‘reality in its revolutionary development.’ At the same time, ‘faithfulness and historical concreteness’ were to be combined with the task of ‘the ideological refashioning and education of the working people in the spirit of socialism.’

(read more)

Socialist Realism


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Russian Pavilion
New York World’s Fair (1939)

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Stalin Monument

1934 Soviet Congress

In recent posts I have presented the music of familiar “classical” composers: Claude Debussy, Sergei Prokofiev, Igor Stravinsky, and Dmitri Shostakovich. I also presented less familiar modern composers, of the New Viennese School: Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg, and Anton Webern. Here I will present a very different group of composers, the New York School. The New York School arose in the early ’50s when John Cage and Morton Feldman met at a performance of Anton Webern’s work. Their music is typified by accident, improvisation, novel textures, and open and extended forms – in particular Feldman, some of whose pieces are five hours long. Another important characteristic of the New York School is their experimentation with novel forms of notation (click the images below) which would allow them to diverge from the traditional scoring that enslaved musicians to the autocratic will of the composer. As you listen to this music, you should hear a world of difference between it and the expressive but insular abstraction of, say, Schoenberg and the manic, or mantic, repetitiveness of, say, Terry Riley, a Minimalist composer on whom I will post more later. Please listen and enjoy. Comments are always welcome and encouraged.

You might want to consider the relationship between the composers who called themselves the New York School, and a group of extremely important painters – all descendants of Jackson Pollock and Clement Greenberg – who also called them selves the New York School: Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko, Willem DeKooning, Franz Kline.

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Jackson Pollock and Clement Greenberg
at the beach, with the artists
Helen Frankenthaler and Lee Krasner (and an unidentified child)

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John Cage
(1912 – 1992)
“The Seasons – Prelude III, Summer”
“The Perilous Night”
“Totem Ancestor”
“A Cage of Saxophones – Five”

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Morton Feldman
(1926 – 1987)
“Rothko Chapel (4)”
“Neither”
“For John Cage (10:00-20:00)”
“For Christian Wolff”
(sample of 3-hr piece)

Browne Available Forms FAC-10775

Earle Brown
(1926 – 2002)
“Synergy”
“Octet”
“Solo for Trumpet”

Wolff Edges Score

Christian Wolff
(b. 1934)
“Burdocks”
“Pairs”
“Dark as A Dungeon”

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left to right:
C.W., E.B., J.C., M.F.

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Helen Frankenthaler (obituary)
Abstract expressionist artist associated with the colour field movement

Michael McNay
The Guardian, Wednesday 28 December 2011

At the age of 23 Helen Frankenthaler painted Mountains and Sea (1952), an abstraction that freed up the logjam in postwar American art following the first sensational burst of creative activity by the abstract expressionists. It looks, in reproduction, like a gently evocative watercolour with a series of blue, green and red stains fading into pink, and a small, glowing yellow ochre passage coalescing into the hint of landscape that the title suggests. In fact Frankenthaler, who has died aged 83, had just returned from a holiday in Nova Scotia to her studio in New York, and nailed a canvas about 7ft high and 10ft wide to the floor and poured oil colour on to the surface.

The method and the scale of it was, of course, borrowed from Jackson Pollock’s procedure, but it was totally devoid of Pollock’s angst-ridden search for the sublime. Frankenthaler said later that, fresh from the north Atlantic, she painted from the memories absorbed into not only her mind but her wrists as well. Painting became once again, as in many of its best periods, an instinctive coalition of hand and eye and controlling intelligence.

(read more)

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Helen Frankenthaler with sculptor David Smith

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Helen Frankenthaler
Life Magazine
1956