Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

In the autumn of 1945, two artists – not young, but not quite middle-aged, either – moved from New York to a village called Springs, near East Hampton on Long Island. These newlyweds had no money. It would be a while before they could make the small clapboard farmhouse that was to be their new home any less freezing in winter, let alone install an indoor bathroom. But this isolated spot, with its ramshackle outbuildings and its view of the Accabonac Creek, was for them a bit of heaven – in the beginning, at least. Together, they cooked and gardened. Together, they went digging for clams, travelling to the beach on their bicycles (they did not own a car). Above all, they worked: he in their barn, she in an upstairs bedroom. Life was, for them both, mostly about painting. Their allegiance to it was fierce: as intense as their loyalty to each other, from which it could never fully be separated.

One of these artists, Jackson Pollock, would one day become very famous – the hard-living central figure of American abstract expressionism, known the world over for his drip paintings, made by allowing the paint to drop from his brush or a can on to a canvas laid on the floor – and, thanks to this, the house is now a US historic landmark, open to the public. … But it’s not Pollock I’m interested in today. I’m looking for traces of his extraordinary and prodigiously talented wife, Lee Krasner, a major retrospective of whose work will open at the Barbican Art Gallery, London, later this month.

Back in 1959, Texan alto saxophonist Ornette Coleman went to New York’s Five Spot venue armed with just a plastic saxophone and proceeded to wreak havoc with a radical new sound that rejected orthodox notions of melody, harmony, and structure – the supposed bedrocks of conventional western music. He called it free jazz, and even the normally insouciant Miles Davis was perturbed by it. As he wrote, in his customary pithy way, in his book, Miles: The Autobiography: “He just came and f__ke up everybody.” Some saw Coleman as a visionary – classica lconductor Leonard Bernstein proclaimed him a genius – while others, among them trumpeter Roy Eldridge, were less enthusiastic and thought the saxophonist was a charlatan. “I think he’s jiving, baby,” Eldridge said.

Back then, admitting that you were partial to free jazz came with a high price – depending on who was “outing” you, you could face ridicule, hostility and even the prospect of being ostracised. 

The Abstract Expressionists emerged from obscurity in the late 1940s to establish New York as the centre of the art world – but some say they became pawns of US spies in the Cold War.

“Societies, like Soviet Russia, without any outrageous modern art of their own, seem to us to be only half alive.”

— Leo Steinberg

Willem de Kooning
Woman, 1949
Oil on canvas with enamel and charcoal
152 x 121 cm
private collection

Modern Art as CIA ‘Weapon’

Revealed: How The Spy Agency Used Unwitting Artists
Such as Pollock and de Kooning in A Cultural Cold War
The Indepentent
By Frances Stonor Saunders
Sunday, 22 October 1995

For decades in art circles it was either a rumour or a joke, but now it is confirmed as a fact. The Central Intelligence Agency used American modern art – including the works of such artists as Jackson Pollock, Robert Motherwell, Willem de Kooning and Mark Rothko – as a weapon in the Cold War. In the manner of a Renaissance prince – except that it acted secretly – the CIA fostered and promoted American Abstract Expressionist painting around the world for more than 20 years.

The connection is improbable. This was a period, in the 1950s and 1960s, when the great majority of Americans disliked or even despised modern art – President Truman summed up the popular view when he said: “If that’s art, then I’m a Hottentot.” As for the artists themselves, many were ex- com- munists barely acceptable in the America of the McCarthyite era, and certainly not the sort of people normally likely to receive US government backing.

Why did the CIA support them? Because in the propaganda war with the Soviet Union, this new artistic movement could be held up as proof of the creativity, the intellectual freedom, and the cultural power of the US. Russian art, strapped into the communist ideological straitjacket, could not compete.
(learn more)

Guston Moma
Philip Guston
Painting, 1954
Oil on canvas
63 1/4 x 60 1/8 inches
Museum of Modern Art, NYC

Screen Shot 2016-02-22 at 11.36.51 PM
Franz Kline
Orange and Black Wall, 1959
Oil on Canvas
66 3/4 x 144 1/2 inches
Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

“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 seeds of Butoh were planted in the experimental atmosphere of the late 1950s, when Tatsumi Hijikata and co-founder Kazuo Ohno began to question the nature of dance itself. Butoh was born out the turmoil and chaos resulting in a loss of identity following WWII that propelled them to reexamine their own culture and to create an indigenous modern genre of dance. Referring to various styles of Western ballroom dance, “Butoh” was adopted by Hijikata and soon his dance was titled Ankoku Butoh or “dance of darkness.” Dance as a creative interaction between form and content conveying the spirit of the times was markedly different from the interpretation of existing forms as practiced in traditional dance/theater and classical ballet. For Hijikata the best body for a Butoh dancer is a corpse, a body that asks for and expresses nothing.


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)


Helen Frankenthaler with sculptor David Smith


Helen Frankenthaler
Life Magazine

By its very nature, action painting is painting in the medium of difficulties.
–Harold Rosenberg, “The American Action Painters” (1952)

There exists my action, regardless of whether or not it is secured.
–Kazuo Shiraga, “Action Only” (1955)


Kazuo Shiraga
Challenging Mud (1955)


Kazuo Shiraga
painting with his feet for Life magazine
at the Nishinomiya factory of Jiro Yoshihara (1956)

Shozo Gutai

Shōzō Shimamoto
making a painting by shattering bottles (1956)


Murakami Saburō
Passing Through (1956)


Kazuo Shiraga
Work II (1958)


Shomei Tomatsu
Atomic Bomb Damage (1961)


Kazuo Shiraga
Black Sky (1990)

Ali Foreman Kline

At a certain moment the canvas began to appear to one American painter after another as an arena in which to act—rather than as a space in which to reproduce, re-design, analyze or “express” an object, actual or imagined. What was to go on the canvas was not a picture but an event.

–Harold Rosenberg

First-Wave (European) Abstraction


Wassily Kandinsky
Composition VII (1913)


Kasimir Malevich
Suprematism (1917)


Piet Mondrian
Composition of Red, Blue, Yellow, and White: Nom II


Second-Wave (American) Abstraction


Arshile Gorky
The Leaf of The Artichoke Is An Owl (1941)

Pollock; Autumn Rhythm, 1950

Jackson Pollock
Autumn Rhythm (1950)


Willem de Kooning
Two Women in The Country (1954)

Kline, Untitled 1957.jpg

Franz Kline
Untitled (1957)

Bird and Dizzy.

Charlie Parker & Dizzy Gillespie

Lot Less, But MORE Industry

Posted: October 6, 2020 in Uncategorized

As I suggested in my video, it might strike some students as very odd – in these era of unregulated pollution and massive extinction – the Greenberg would argue for increasing industry, rather than shutting it down. The point I tried to make – and I believe it is what Greenberg had in mind – is that industry is not intrinsically dirty and destructive. Rather, industry as we have thus far practiced it is dirty and destructive. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Those Greenberg does not use this exact language, I would suggest he would agree that we – because of or laziness, greed, and lack of imagination – have largely remains in a paleotechnic mode of production, heavily dependent on clumsy, inefficient, non-renewable resources whose extraction causes massive harm to both humans and the environment. However, it remains within our reach, and is indeed essential for our survival, to move forward to a neotechnic mode of production.

This lengthy and imposing book was first published in 1934. While aspects of it now seem somewhat quaint, its overall outlook and argument strike as remarkably advanced for its time. If it did not retain relevant for our day, the Anthropocene, I doubt the University of Chicago Press would continue to publish it and endorse it as a statement of more than mere historical interest.

Technics and Civilization first presented its compelling history of the machine and critical study of its effects on civilization in 1934—before television, the personal computer, and the Internet even appeared on our periphery.

Drawing upon art, science, philosophy, and the history of culture, Lewis Mumford explained the origin of the machine age and traced its social results, asserting that the development of modern technology had its roots in the Middle Ages rather than the Industrial Revolution. Mumford sagely argued that it was the moral, economic, and political choices we made, not the machines that we used, that determined our then industrially driven economy. Equal parts powerful history and polemic criticism, Technics and Civilization was the first comprehensive attempt in English to portray the development of the machine age over the last thousand years—and to predict the pull the technological still holds over us today.

Lewis Mumford
(1895 -1990)
American architectural critic, urban planner, and historian who analyzed the effects of technology and urbanization on human societies throughout history.

The Foreseeable Future

Posted: October 1, 2020 in Uncategorized

Look what showed in my email only moments ago. Seems that I’m not the only person with extinction on my mind. This lead was sent to me via the MIT Press news letter, the regular circular for my favorite publisher in America.

How humanity came to contemplate its possible extinction.

From forecasts of disastrous climate change to prophecies of evil AI superintelligences and the impending perils of genome editing, our species is increasingly concerned with the prospects of its own extinction. With humanity’s future on this planet seeming more insecure by the day, in the twenty-first century, existential risk has become the object of a growing field of serious scientific inquiry. But, as Thomas Moynihan shows in X-Risk, this preoccupation is not exclusive to the post-atomic age of global warming and synthetic biology. Our growing concern with human extinction itself has a history.

Tracing this untold story, Moynihan revisits the pioneers who first contemplated the possibility of human extinction and stages the historical drama of this momentous discovery. He shows how, far from being a secular reprise of religious prophecies of apocalypse, existential risk is a thoroughly modern idea, made possible by the burgeoning sciences and philosophical tumult of the Enlightenment era. In recollecting how we first came to care for our extinction, Moynihan reveals how today’s attempts to measure and mitigate existential threats are the continuation of a project initiated over two centuries ago, which concerns the very vocation of the human as a rational, responsible, and future-oriented being.

Extinction In Our Times

Posted: September 23, 2020 in Uncategorized

“More than two thirds of the world’s wild animals have disappeared over the past 50 years. You may not know that because it was barely reported on.”

For whatever reason, I decided this semester to leap from Wordsworth directly to Eliot, bypassing two important late-19th century authors I assigned to students last semester, Oscar Wilde and Friedrich Nietzsche. Each of them took great interest in the thought, still quite new in Victorian times, that all species, including the human species were destined to go extinct. Much of the discussion on this topic derived not only from Darwin’s The Origin of Species (1859) and The Descent of Man (1871), but also Lord Kelvin’s and Hermann von Helmholtz’s (1852) writing on the eventual heat death of the universe.

Wilde’s and Nietzsche writing are set agains this background of futility. Each asks what, in a world which is destined to extinction, makes life worth living? The thought of the ultimate extinction of all life was a shocking and depressing notion to most persons in the 19th century, even though they believed that the great cessation lay in the very distant future. It was at this point in history that the scholarly and artist communities were beginning to take very seriously the notion of deep space and deep time.

While deep time has again become a topic of intense scientific and artistic interest in the 21st century, eventual extinction no longer seems to us as a very distant event, but instead one looming dead ahead, potentially one we will live to witness first hand. Below you can examine a new documentary film by beloved British naturalist Sir David Attenborough on this very timely topic.

Friedrich Nietzche
“On Truth and Lies In A Non-Moral Sense”

Oscar Wilde
Preface To Dorian Gray

As a wildlife filmmaker, and a committed environmentalist, I’m delighted that this film has finally been made. And I’m impressed by the way this complex story has been put together.

After being shown that the current extinction rate is 100 times faster than natural evolution, we were introduced to the last two northern white rhinos, condemned to extinction, and to the Kenyan ranger whose job it is to look after them until they eventually perish.

From there, heavyweight international scientists from a range of disciplines described all the ways in which human activity is fuelling biodiversity loss across our planet.

Eliot and Experimental Psychology

Posted: September 20, 2020 in Uncategorized

Nervous System Angelus

It is impossible to say just what I mean!
But as if a magic lantern threw
the nerves in patterns on a screen.

–T. S. Eliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (1917)

• • •

If we wish to discern whether anything is beautiful or not, we do not refer the representation of it to the object by means of understanding with a view to cognition, but by means of the imagination (acting perhaps in conjunction with understanding) we refer the representation to the subject and its feeling of pleasure or displeasure. The judgement of taste, therefore, is not a cognitive judgement, and so not logical, but is aesthetic-which means that it is one whose determining ground cannot be other than subjective. Every reference of representations is capable of being objective, even that of sensations (in which case it signifies the real in an empirical representation). The one exception to this is the feeling of pleasure or displeasure. This denotes nothing in the object, but is a feeling which the subject has of itself and of the manner in which it is affected by the representation.

Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgment (1790), SS 1. The judgement of taste is aesthetic.

Now, I would argue that the same applies to intelligence. To the extent that we believe in such a thing as a “beautiful mind,” the very last way we should ever expect to identify one would be by means of IQ testing or neurological analysis. Of the many areas of research in which the writings of Kant enjoy an enduring influence, one of the most significant is the field of Phenomenology, a branch of philosophy which (along with the Pragmatism of the American psychologist William James) first arises as a critique of Experimental Psychology. Though the very same could be said of Freud: psychoanalysis arose a critical rebuke to the brilliant inanity of Helmholtz, Fechner and Wundt.

But does anyone write today on this stuff, and in a way which combines the very best of Art History and the History of Science? Yes.


Or, if you were prefer to read the classic text I mentioned in class the other day, have a look at William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience, considered by Modern Library to be one of the greatest books of the 20th century. (Pay no heed to the readers’ list, which has been hijacked by morons and zombies.)

Canon Formation, Canon Revision

Posted: September 20, 2020 in Uncategorized

Rembrandt von Rijn
Aristotle Contemplating a Bust of Homer (1653)

Dear Students, we have already this semester discussed canon and canonicity with respect to the critical writings of T. S. Eliot. By “canon,” we mean at least two things:

1) the established and understood (though not necessarily written) set of rules whereby a given work of art can be recognized as valid and great, or the set of standards according to which an artist might produced a work of art which aspires to greatness.

2) the set of individual works (explicitly enumerated or otherwise) which have been accepted and set forth as exemplifying artistic greatness, and which function as standards against which all new works can be judged.

Canons, where they have been established, generally function to create a sense of collective identity, to draw together and maintain groups whose members are united by a common appreciation and respect for a body of works they view as authoritative. Most of the literature you read in high school – or are reading in college Humanities courses – will be have been taken from out of the established canon of great European and American literature – generally collected and presented in the form of anthologies. For many years, the Norton History of English, or American, Literature – currently edited by preeminent Shakespeare scholar and Harvard professor Steven Greenblatt – have been considered definitive. (In opposition to this, the modern Sciences, though they do have their own body of canonical writings, tend rather to be taught though textbooks – something about which you’ll hear me speak later.) But where there are group norms there are bound to arise disputes over what constitutes the norm and how one conforms to it properly, and where this is inclusion there is bound also to be exclusion. Since canons first began to appear, there have been disputes over what they do and ought to contain.

Today is no exception with regard to canon debates. Over the last decades, and particularly since the 1980s, a great debate has arisen in American universities regarding what taught ought to be taught to students (CLICK). As this country becomes increasingly diversified, and increasingly aware of its social diversity, many scholars have complained that the English literary canon canon is either too restrictive, insufficiently relevant, or entirely obsolete. Consequently, various efforts have arisen either to expand, revise or destroy the canon. In an effort to address these issues, the Norton company has in recent years begun to issue a series of “alternative” or supplementary anthologies, each representing a group of writers whose identities, interests and styles were thought grossly underrepresented in the dominant canon, which was composed predominantly of white males. These new volumes, though received well for the most part, have no emerged without controversy, and much of what is taught in Literature departments in colleges today involves not only the books contained in these modern canons but also the fiery debates surrounding their production.

Recently, I heard on the radio a broadcast featuring Amherst College professor Ilan Stavans, general editor of the most recent addition to the Norton family of literary anthologies – The Norton Anthology of Latino Literature.


The Accents of Latino Literature
NPR – On Point – Monday, September 13, 2010

Stavans, in his remarks, discussed the diverse group of cultures and historical periods from which he drew the texts he found representative of Latino literature. As in all prior cases of canon expansion and revision, Stavans will have made choices that will choice various parties either to rejoice or protest. This is almost inevitable, and these reactions are worthy of investigation and discussion. For now what should matter to us however, is the simply fact that standards do change, however gradually or rapidly, and that to remain culturally relevant ourselves we must be aware of these changes – both past and present.

What are your experiences with canons and canonicity? Has your education thus far taken the form of an inculcation into canonical literature, or has your education avoided the canon? If you have received such an education, do you feel that process represented an initiation into great culture, or rather a form of ideological indoctrination, or simply a waste of your time? Does your awareness of the literary canon, however recently acquired offer you comfort or distress?

I welcome and encourage all thoughtful responses.

Propeller (1937)

Rhythm (1938)

Rhythm Color no. 1076 (1939)