Readings For October 19th

Posted: October 19, 2020 in Readings


Susan Sontag
(1933 – 2004)
“Against Interpretation” (1964)
“Notes on Camp” (1964)


Susan Sontag with Jasper Johns


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

Image  —  Posted: October 11, 2020 in Uncategorized

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)

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.

greenberg pollock krasner frankenthaler

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


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


Morton Feldman
(1926 – 1987)
“Rothko Chapel (4)”
“For John Cage (10:00-20:00)”
“For Christian Wolff”
(sample of 3-hr piece)

Browne Available Forms FAC-10775

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

Wolff Edges Score

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


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

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.

Readings For February 4th

Posted: October 3, 2020 in Readings

Jackson Pollock Makes A Painting



Harold Rosenberg
(1906 – 1978)
“The American Actions Painters” (1952)


Leo Steinberg
(1920 – 2011)
“Contemporary Art and The Plight of Its Public” (1962)

Image  —  Posted: October 1, 2020 in Uncategorized

Image  —  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)

Issued by The Museum of Modern Art, New York

Jackson Pollock Jazz
1. Jelly Morton and His Red Hot Peppers – Beale Street Blues
2. Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra – Lazy River
3. Louis Armstrong – Mahogany Hall Stomp
4. Count Basie and His Orchestra – One O’Clock Jump
5. Billie Holiday – I Got a Man Crazy For Me (He’s Funny)
6. Duke Ellington – Delta Serenade
7. Artie Shaw and Orch – It Had To Be You
8. Billie Holiday – When a Man Loves a Woman
9. Duke Ellington – Solitude
10. Fats Waller – Carolina Shout
11. Count Basie and Orch – Boogie Woogie
12. T Bone Waller – I Got a Break Baby
13. Lionel Hampton – Central Avenue Breakdown
14. Coleman Hawkins – Boff Boff (Mop Mop)
15. Coleman Hawkins – My Ideal
16. Lionel Hampton – Jack The Bellboy
17. Louis Armstrong – St. James Infirmary

More music for you!

A great deal of purism is the translation of an extreme solicitude, an anxiousness as to the fate of art, a concern for its identity. We must respect this. When the purist insists upon excluding “literature” and subject matter from plastic [visual] art, now and in the future, the most we can charge him with off-hand is an unhistorical attitude. It is quite easy to show that abstract art, like every other cultural phenomenon, reflects the social and other circumstances of the age in which its creators live, and that there is nothing inside art itself, disconnected from history, which compels it to go in one direction or another. But it is not so easy to reject the purist’s assertion that the best contemporary plastic art is abstract. Here the purist does not have to support his position with metaphysical pretensions. And when he insists on doing so, those of us who admit the merits of abstract art without accepting its claims in full must offer our own explanation for its present supremacy.

– Clement Greenberg, “Towards a Newer Laocoon” (1940)


The great 20th-century art critic Clement Greenberg, in the passage above, is alluding to three of the greatest abstract painters of the 20th century: Wassily Kandinsky, Piet Mondrian and Kasimir Malevich. Each of these men wrote a manifesto (see and click the images below) in which he explained the nature, production and effect of abstract painting in emphatically spiritual terms. Greenberg eagerly asserts that the work these abstract artists have produced is indeed the very greatest of the day. However, he insists that, when it comes to these artists’ explanations of what they were actually up to when making their work, they are, sadly, completely mistaken. Rather than resorting to high ideals and spiritual principles, Greenberg insists that abstract art, like all art, must be explained exclusively in terms of the historical and material conditions under which is what produced, and that is must be appreciated in material, not spiritual, terms.




A student in a class I recently taught thoughtfully expressed concern over the fact that Greenberg dismissed the school of painting known as Symbolism, which according to popular understanding, sought to achieve spiritual effects through a return to mythology and a world of pure illusion emancipated from our own. Greenberg exemplified Symbolist painting by referring to the work of Gustave Moreau. Elsewhere, however, Greenberg commended the music of the “symbolist” composer Claude Debussy for its “escape from literature”, its abstract purity.

Music, in flight from the undisciplined, bottomless sentimentality of the Romantics, was striving to describe and narrate (program music). That music at this point imitates literature would seem to spoil my thesis. But music imitates painting as much as it does poetry when it becomes representational, and besides, it seems to me that Debussy used the program [by which Greenberg means attempts to create the effect of stories and landscapes, as in say, Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony] more as a pretext for experiment than as an end in itself. In the same way that the Impressionist painters were trying to get at the structure beneath the color, Debussy was trying to get at the ‘sound underneath the note’.”

In your own words, what do you think it is that Greenberg is hearing in pieces such as those below?

T. S. Eliot Video!

Posted: September 15, 2020 in Uncategorized

This project only took me fourteen hours. It’s now 5:AM. I hope I spent my time in a way that is interesting and helpful to you. Have a look!