Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

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.



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.


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 (, 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.


Joan Mitchell
(1925 – 1992)

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.


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


Cecil Beaton Takes A Photo
Vogue Magazine (1951)



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


Russian Pavilion
New York World’s Fair (1939)


Stalin Monument

1934 Soviet Congress


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

The newly unveiled Baraka Obama portrait is clearly not the kind of challenging art Leo Steinberg had in mind when writing his famous essay. Nor would I say that these derivative images are genuine expressions of the ‘plight of the public.’ Can you see why I make those to assertions? Nevertheless, it’s interesting to view this in the light of yesterday’s discussion regarding the public’s keen interest in emerging art, and the diminishing endurance of shock.

Obama’s Official Portrait Is Already The Best New Meme Of The Year

Serendipity! – Right On Schedule

Posted: February 13, 2018 in Uncategorized

Not long ago, Jasper Johns, who is now 87 and widely regarded as America’s foremost living artist, was reminiscing about his childhood in small-town South Carolina. One day when he was in the second grade, a classmate named Lottie Lou Oswald misbehaved and was summoned to the front of the room. As the teacher reached for a wooden ruler and prepared to paddle her, Lottie Lou grabbed the ruler from the teacher’s hand and broke it in half. Her classmates were stunned.

“It was absolutely wonderful,” Mr. Johns told me, appearing to relish the memory of the girl’s defiance. A ruler, an instrument of the measured life, had become an accessory to rebellion.

Jasper Johns is first studio artist in 34 years to receive Presidential Medal of Freedom

News From New Pompeii

Posted: February 12, 2018 in Uncategorized


Wallace Stevens
(1879 – 1955)
A Postcard From The Volcano

Children picking up our bones
Will never know that these were once
As quick as foxes on the hill;

And that in autumn, when the grapes
Made sharp air sharper by their smell
These had a being, breathing frost;

And least will guess that with our bones
We left much more, left what still is
The look of things, left what we felt

At what we saw. The spring clouds blow
Above the shuttered mansion house,
Beyond our gate and the windy sky

Cries out a literate despair.
We knew for long the mansion’s look
And what we said of it became

A part of what it is … Children,
Still weaving budded aureoles,
Will speak our speech and never know,

Will say of the mansion that it seems
As if he that lived there left behind
A spirit storming in blank walls,

A dirty house in a gutted world,
A tatter of shadows peaked to white,
Smeared with the gold of the opulent sun.


Jasper Johns
Light Bulb 1 (1958)
Private Collection

Lucio Fontana

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)

In our form of society, audience and understanding for advanced painting have been produced, both here and abroad, first of all by a tiny circle of poets, musicians, theoreticians, men of letters, who have sensed in their own work the presence of the new creative principle.

–Harold Rosenberg, “American Action Painters” (1952)


Frank O’Hara
(1926 – 1966)

Screen Shot 2013-02-11 at 11.22.05 AM



The experience, you will notice, the elements which enter the presence of the transforming catalyst, are of two kinds: emotions and feelings. The effect of a work of art upon the person who enjoys it is an experience different in kind from any experience not of art.

–T. S. Eliot

I wonder what anyone will make of these recordings, from the 1970s, of the very famous Canadian pianist Glenn Gould, author of the famous essay “Let’s Ban Applause!” (1962). The YouTube comments are total nonsense, of course. But perhaps there is a lesson to be learned from watching people make idiots of themselves by failing epically in their attempts to praise or blame. The same appalling spectacle can also be seen regularly over on, and I invite you all to have a look, when you get a chance, at customer reviews there. Horrifying, but instructive, and indicative of just how important it us for us to have decent critics in our culture. But enough of general issues. What’s actually going on in these specific videos? What would the author of our current readings have to say about these performances? What do you imaging Gould is trying to achieve here? Is he succeeding wonderfully, or is he yet another epic failure? Why? How?

Orlando Gibbons
“Lord Salisbury’s Pavan and Galliard”

William Byrd
Galliard No.6

But why in the world would Gould ever want to ban applause? And what might that have to do with arguments put forth in the critical writings of T. S. Eliot? Will the following piece of music offer any assistance as we attempt to answer that question?

Have A Fun Weekend!

Posted: February 9, 2018 in Uncategorized