30 April 2021

Karen Kurczynski—Jorn on Abstraction and Inhumanity

Kurczynski, The Art and Politics of Asger Jorn
...this renewed interest in painting [in the 1950s] had an important social function as a profound rejection of what critics perceived as the threatening aspects of the spread of mass-media technologies mostly experienced on a screen. (196)

...cultural critics who contrasted the material specificity of painting as the ultimate medium of sensory engagement to the alienating effects of the mass media, despite the media's own claims to collapse distance into televisual "immediacy." (197)

Jorn's interest in gesture was about singularity itself, meaning not an especially talented individual but rather the volatile presence of a subjectivity at a particular moment or in relation to such a specific image. ... Jorn's emphasis on irreproducible singularity turned its back on the ideas of technological progress that the historical avant-garde had believed in so strongly before the war. (197)

In 1962, Jorn wrote that the great inhumanity of both the camps and the bomb was their dehumanization of people as a mass: [quoting Jorn directly] "The threatening thing about the German concentration camps as well as the American Hiroshima explosion lies in no way in the atrocities, which are no worse than those happening in many other places on earth. The shattering thing is their colossal and blind mass effect that makes humanity more and more valueless." (197)
Here, then, is a dissent from mass-ification but NOT from abstraction per se. This seems more lucid than lumping the two together, since the concurrent use of the A-word to denote both (1) nonmaterial intellectual images, and (2) visual representations skewed to the edge of recognizability, inevitably clouds more than it clarifies; and so here we have an excellent demonstration of just what is NOT abstract about so-called Abstract Painting, i.e. its materiality...or at least one could choose to parse "immediacy" and "singularity" of "gesture" this way. Abstract art is itself; here KK gives an account of a moment in history wherein Jorn and others (Adorno is mentioned) would/could not see television as simply being itself, but rather fixated on its ability to REproduce, and on a "mass" scale. I suppose the theory of Medium as Message would hold that TV is an "immediate" experience of TV itself, not merely an uncanny reproduction of other content. There's really no Right Answer to that disjunction, just different ways of looking. But looking in BOTH cases is passive, so the fact that the painterlies also had powerful theories of collective (NOT mass!) artisthood really ought to be acknowledged as a factor here. It unifies their theory, makes it whole, and supports their claims above. Mass communication technologies would not be democratized for decades yet, hence there was no such thing as active/generative participation in either the medium or the message of the new mass culture. Hence when KK subsequently points to Jorn's own use of some modern reproductive techniques in his own ongoing work, it must be borne in mind that the analogy to television (which is the specific example used above) breaks down over the question of activity/generativity; also (more so yet) over the lack of mass access to the network of TVs. (The network, by the way, seems to have since become both the medium and the message; if Jorn et al failed to see this coming, it was because they didn't have to see it coming to know that anyone could paint but not just anyone could broadcast.) And as for "mak[ing] humanity more and more valueless," few developments have contributed more to that process than the networks by which us humans have been forced to learn how many of us there are and how much we all suck. The media theorists carried the day as soon as the mass- became able to generate media content as easily as they could smear fingerpaint; but this has indeed made everyone more interchangeable, hence "valueless," than ever before, and it has not actually brought us either literally or figuratively closer together.

[from a notebook, 2018]

1 comment:

Stefan Kac said...

McKenzie Wark
The Beach Beneath the Street: The Everyday Life and Glorious Times of the Situationist International (2011)

"The artist Constant Nieuwenhuys (1920-2005)...had a rather different experience of the place [Saint-Germain] to Vian's bohemians, Vali's tribe or Chtcheglov's renegade Lettrists, because he was there with his little boy: "The Parisians are not so nice, that is why they paint abstracts, and that is also why they slam the door when, with Victor holding my hand, I ask for a room. Yes, everything is abstract here..."—even compassion. And yet writing about it later Constant could not but agree with Chtcheglov: "The atmosphere of this bourgeois quarter of Paris was so profoundly altered by a small group of intellectuals, the so-called existentialists, that it acquired international fame and even became a tourist attraction." (28)

[My note (2017) says, in part:] well, okay, abstracting in the sense of losing touch with the human face of one's actions, a la (famously) Reagan, or (less famously) everyone currently living in the first world. But this is not exactly the same thing as artists do even though we (lamentably, I suppose I must now say) do use the exact same word. And of course the ability to abstract is profoundly/distinctively human itself, mixed bag though it certainly is.