23 November 2021

Representationalism as Certainty

Evidently this has been making the rounds:


When I look at this image, I see a concept made perfectly transparent and rendered powerfully with a high degree of technical and aesthetic skill alike. I see a devastating and pessimistic statement made pleasing to look at. Like a "beautiful" but "sad" piece of music, this makes for a particulary powerful combination.

All of this is familiar, though it is not to be taken for granted. It is unusual to find the technical skill and the powerful conceptual sense merged in the same artist. (This in itself is no dig at conceptual art; it's just simple math.) But backing up a step, another thing this image makes clear is that the artist has total confidence and total certainty vis-a-vis his "message." A mere unconscious twinge of doubt would make the creation of this particular image impossible. Artists customarily are praised for such displays of fortitude, for "really going for it." But this is far more admirable in the realms of abstraction and aesthetics than it is regarding concrete politics. When political actors assume this degree of certainty, bad things tend to happen. And history is littered with artists whose certainty about individual political figures later turned to equally intense regret. If all it takes for us to lose sight of this is for us to agree with the "message" we are receiving in a particular moment, then we will not get very far (and we won't deserve to).

Images are uniquely powerful vehicles for any "message." That power is a responsibility. It is not a toy. McLuhan's hypothetical piece of cloth with "American Flag" printed on it has, as he indeed argued, nowhere near the power of the genuine imagistic article. There is much more to this aspect of images than their being worth "a thousand words," or any number of words. The point is, they are totally different than words. And as powerfully as the above image conveys its "message," and as strongly as I am inclined to agree with that message, all of this nonetheless reinforces for me a deep uneasiness with this kind of political art. I am not certain enough of anything in the world, not even of the beliefs I've spent the last 15 years writing about in this space, that I would be comfortable making this kind of statement against another person using a caricature of their own image as its basis.

The poverty of words as against images is precisely what makes words suitable (and images unsuitable) vehicles for political dialogue. That entire line of argument is summed up concisely and profoundly in this image, as it is also by many of the images of George Floyd which have been installed on sides of buildings and freeway underpasses over the last year and a half. In seeking to put an individual human face on issues which remain too abstract to too many of us, these images also, perhaps unwittingly, signal a retreat from decades of hard-won intellectual and legislative momentum toward understanding racism as a structural problem. Instead, we are treated to, alternately, the beatification or the condemnation of individual social actors who cannot possibly be, not even in these two cases I don't think, reducible to such either/or judgments. If you think that anyone is so reducible, then I question your fitness for political participation (and I urge you to stick to words in any case).

These are images which obfuscate and mystify the underlying structural factors as viciously and totally as any piece of government or media propaganda ever could. I can only hope this is because these artists take that awareness for granted, not because they are woefully ignorant and/or incapacitated (far too easily) by rage, and not because their identification or contra-identification with the skin-deep traits of any given person is as deep of a political analysis as they are capable of making or understanding.

The transparency of "concept" here is a double-edged sword. It ensures that the "message" cannot be lost in aesthetic translation, but it also traps the artist on a level of crudity which is totally unbecoming of the issues at stake here. What is this work, really, but a very sophisticated piece of name-calling? Rather than modulating legitimate anger into a mature and nuanced political statement, aesthetics and technique in this case serve merely to amplify the visceral sentiment while leaving its infantile quality intact. A pencil-drawn moustache-and-glasses overlay involves far less craft but operates, conceptually, on the same level of (im)maturity, the same level of historical and political understanding. This is the trap that conceptual brute force lays for all political artists.

(This post was written in an hour (i.e. tonight) after germinating for many months.)

22 November 2021

Bodies and Artifacts (iv-b)—Jean and LeRoi together again


Whereas Jean makes much of
the elements of craft, technique, proven methods which make the artist a worker in a working world,
(p. 406)
LeRoi bends over backward to downplay this part.
as I have said before, Negro music is the result of certain more or less specific ways of thinking about the world. Given this consideration, all talk of technical application is certainly after the fact.
(p. 211)
And earlier,
The trumpets, trombones, and tubas of the brass bands were played with a varying amount of skill, though when a man has learned enough about an instrument to play the music he wants to play, "skill" becomes an arbitrary consideration.
(p. 75)
This last statement especially lays bare the disjuncture, since for Jean skill cannot be arbitrary, and the reason it cannot be arbitrary is because it forms a/the basis upon which a newly-minted work of art, no matter how stylistically esoteric, is never quite as unfamiliar as the plebes' visceral indigestion tells them that it is. Jean's theory is every bit as sociological as LeRoi's, but the two writers appeal to this sociological angle with entirely different agendas in mind.

LeRoi's strongly ambivalent feelings about the inevitable arrival of a certain technically astute Negro music at precisely this stage of broad cultural techno-comprehensibility are revealing; and the revelation is less flattering the more seriously we take Jean's thesis about the métier.
The Negro music that developed in the forties had more than an accidental implication of social upheaval associated with it. To a certain extent, this music resulted from conscious attempts to remove it from the danger of mainstream dilution or even understanding. For one thing, the young musicians began to think of themselves as serious musicians, even artists, and not performers. And that attitude erased immediately the protective and parochial atmosphere of "the folk expression" from jazz. Musicians like Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, and Dizzy Gillespie were all quoted at various times as saying, "I don't care if you listen to my music or not." This attitude certainly must have mystified the speakeasy-Charleston-Cotton-Club set of white Americans, who had identified jazz only with liberation from the social responsibilities of full citizenship. It also mystified many of the hobbyists, who were the self-styled arbiters of what Afro-American music should be. ...
(p. 188)

For the first time critics and commentators on jazz, as well as critics in other fields, attacked a whole mode of Afro-American music (with the understanding that this attack was made on the music as music, and not merely because it was the product of the black American). The point is that because of the lifting of the protective "folk expression" veil
[!!has LRJ not been seeking the entire time to restore a similar veil of the socio-cultural and, if we're being honest, of the racial too?? for protect[ion]? probably not! but protection is the inevitable result! and that is regressive! this passage explains exactly why!]
from a Negro music, the liberal commentators could criticize it as a pure musical expression. And most of them thought it hideous. ...
(p. 189)

It seems to me an even more fantastic kind of sophistry that would permit a white man to give opinions on how he thinks a black man should express himself
[but he JUST SAID these were attacks on music as music?! so this was just cover for white critics to say how they think a black man should express himself?! or is he TAKING IT PERSONALLY after himself implying (literally on the previous page) that it was no longer to be taken personally?!]
musically or any other way, given the context of the liberal social organism, but under the canons of "art criticism," this kind of criticism is obligatory.
[sure, most critics are worthless parasites. duly noted.]
So then, if only by implication, bebop led jazz into the arena of art, one of the most despised terms in the American language. But, as art, or at least, as separated from the vertiginous patronization of the parochial term folk art (which often resulted in the lugubrious quotes with which I prefaced this chapter), the Negro music of the forties had pushed its way into a position of serious (if controversial) regard.
(p. 190)


What seem most in need of emphasis here are the double forms of assimilation or synthesis taking place between black and white American cultures. On one hand, the largely artificial "upward" social move, demanded by the white mainstream of all minorities, and the psychological address to that demand made by the black bourgeoisie, whereby all consideration of local culture is abandoned for the social and psychological security of the "main." On the other hand, the lateral (exchanging) form of synthesis, whereby difference is used to enrich and broaden, and the value of any form lies in its eventual use.
[so if expression is the eventual use, what exactly is the value of that? and wtf has all this socio-cultural-ness got to do with use? if all talk of technical application is certainly after the fact, has the very concept of use not been pre-drained of any meaningful content?]

It is this latter form of synthesis (certainly available and actual, to varying degrees, since the first black man came into America) that became so important after World War II, and even more magnified after the Korean War. The point is that where one form of synthesis, which was actually assimilation, tended to wipe out one culture and make the other even less vital, the other kind of synthesis gave a local form to a general kind of nonconformity that began to exist in American (Western) society after World War II...
(p. 191)

What LeRoi insists upon, really, is not so different from what Jean has said about the modern artist

above all, the notion that any
such as may emerge, may not be
imposed in any way from outside
but instead must
evolv[e] inside the métier itself from the nature of the material worked
As the Gershwins said,
Who could ask for anything more?
But the problem is that,
in LeRoi's account

the nature of the material worked
a social fact

rather than
a material fact

also that
the métier itself
has not been freely chosen by the craftsman

(and, per above, may/could/should (?!) also come with certain ground rules for certain Others to observe in any discussion of it...which is sort of a drag)


the guild has chosen it for them,

(and this is worse)

denied it to them
without possibility of appeal


(this is today the worst
it is everywhere)

insisted that it is their birthright even in absence of any indication of properly artistic inclination or ability such as the analogy to a craft guild (my analogy, not his) would suggest must be defended against dilution.
it was assumed that anybody could sing the blues. If someone had lived in this world into manhood, it was taken for granted that he had been given the content of his verses, and as I pointed out earlier, musical training was not a part of African tradition—music like any art was the result of natural inclination.
(p. 82)
What is unique about jazz is that,
the first jazzmen were from both sides of the fence—from the darker blues tradition and a certain fixed socio-cultural, and most of the time economic, stratum, and also from the "white" Creole tradition and its worship of what were certainly the ideals of a Franco-American middle class.
(p. 139)
as jazz developed after the early twenties in this country, it could only be a music that would reflect the socio-cultural continuum that had developed within Negro America from blackest black to whitest white. The jazz player could come from any part of that socio-cultural spectrum, or at least combine sufficiently the older autonomous blues tradition with the musical traditions of the Creoles or the ragtime orchestras of the North. And thus, jazz could not help but reflect the entire black society.
(pp. 139-140)
Previously and elsewhere, however, the situation was not so flexible.
Such a thing as a middle-class blues singer is almost unheard of. It is, it seems to me, even a contradiction of terms.
(p. 140)

The beauty of jazz, then, its musical and political beauty alike for those so inclined, is to a great extent a function of its class inclusiveness.

Similarly for race as for class, there are
double forms of assimilation or synthesis taking place between black and white American cultures
a certain
lateral (exchanging) form of synthesis, whereby difference is used to enrich and broaden, and the value of any form lies in its eventual use
Most importantly, this
gave a local form to a general kind of nonconformity
This last part especially seems to me like something worth hanging onto. I just want to add that when one's
has been chosen for one
(this time before the fact)

one can only expect to feel precisely the ambivalence at the thought of such syntheses that LeRoi evinces throughout these pages

whereas the occasion ought, ideally, just maybe, to call for a bit more of the equanimity and solid workaday contentment of Jean's artisan.


more pessimistically

perhaps it is merely a choice

alienation from the Others within a fragmented society


alienation from the total unity of one's (ostensibly unified) society


as in the (admittedly obnoxious) parlance of high culture and academia, perhaps a synthesis per se is something that intellectual laborers labor their entire life in order to have a mere chance of achieving. It is an achievement rather than a given. The statement that
Expression issued from life, and was beauty
bespeaks not mere cultural differences but, dare I say, the specter of outright cultural anathema between Jean and LeRoi. Maybe that is the point LeRoi is trying to make, and maybe I am not helping things by trying to extract some larger lesson from it. My point, if there is to be one, is that one of these options looks, to me, now, much more attractive than the other in light of so-called current events.

In any case, LeRoi thinks he knows exactly what the métier of being Black is, and he's so sure he's right about what it is that he is comfortable casting a sizable minority of Black people out of the tribe the minute they so much as have the thought of, say, assimilating to the white mainstream or amassing wealth. This recapitulates in reverse the fallacy of the white arriviste who asks the individual Black person,
What do your people think?
In contrast to the postindustrial musicians' union which no longer requires a tryout, LeRoi plays the overzealous journeyman who would rather the guild died with him than lower its standards. In so doing, he hoists the full weight of all such existential angst as Jean's passage speaks to onto an identity which is narrower and more exclusive than that of the craftsperson. Being a hereditary identity, it is essentially predestined.

09 November 2021

Bodies and Artifacts (second interlude)—Arendt's Things

Christopher Lasch
The Minimal Self (1984)

Commodities are produced for immediate consumption. ... They wear out even if they are not used, since they are designed to be superseded by "new and improved" products, changing fashions, and technological innovations. ... Articles produced for use, on the other hand, without regard to their marketability, wear out only when they are literally used up. "It is this durability", Hannah Arendt once observed, "that gives the things of the world their relative independence from men who produce and use them, their 'objectivity' which makes them withstand, 'stand against' and endure, at least for a time, the voracious needs and wants of their living makers and users. From this viewpoint, the things of the world have the function of stabilizing human life, and their objectivity lies in the fact that . . . men, their everchanging nature notwithstanding, can retrieve their sameness, that is, their identity, by being related to the same chair and the same table."

(p. 31)

07 November 2021

Bodies and Artifacts (iv-a)—A Story of Jean and LeRoi

Jean Cassou
"The Nostalgia for a Métier"
Art History: An Anthology of Modern Criticism (1963)
ed. Wylie Sypher
pp. 399-409

Think of the tragedy of modern artistic consciousness. Try to discern first of all what it really is. We are led back to the inception of the creative act, where the artist can do only what springs from himself alone; and without knowing what his work will be or how it will be received (save that he is utterly sure it will be refused) he appears as a nearly unknown, useless, nameless creature...

It is the grandeur and honor of modern art to have put the accent on this first step in the artistic process, that of conceiving, to have reduced the definition of art itself to conceiving, it being clearly understood that each conception is not an a priori abstraction, that it comes into being only by manifesting itself as a form. But in that form what [it?] signifies is its problematic character: it is a proposal, a hypothesis, an abnormal and subversive venture. And its inventor can only doubt its viability. For in its behalf he has no guarantee, no guarantor. No teaching has guided him in developing it, and since he is alone in his corner and it in no way resembles things produced by certain, sanctioned, and regular methods, it seems to him that the world will not know what to make of it.

Besides, this is precisely one of the current opinions about modern works of art: they are studio experiments, fabrications of the mind, theories. ... Each of these lonely, odd creators, each of these paupers who had only their own talent, devised a little sudden and surprising thing with the depth of a cry. But it seemed necessary to them to make this cry live, to give it endurance that it might be accepted. Therefore, Cézanne, in his humble and pitiful jargon, spoke of "realizing." He had to accomplish this realization. So two aspects of creativity distinguish themselves: that of conception, the meditation by which the artist under the sting of his gadfly invents for himself his needed symbols, his plastic world, that by which he is himself...; and on the other side, the elements of craft, technique, proven methods which make the artist a worker in a working world and his work a living reality, recognizable and acceptable in the monumental unity of a culture. Under this second guise, artistic creation enters a domain where society encounters it. Art and society: the métier is their common meeting point.

Undeniably, the revolutions in modern art, formidable in their bursting variety and their dizzying succession, have obliged us to stress the speculative nature of artistic creation: everyone has had his theory, this one, an analysis of light, that one, about the structure of things, and in behalf of each, a single man among men, lonely among men, has spoken his work, cried his cry. Yet the need for realizing that tormented Cézanne, the nostalgia for a métier his fellows confessed, leads us to understand another essential step in the process which is a making, and which ought to create works by means of a synthesis of all kinds of knowledge and experiments, those which homo faber has at his disposal as master of his medium, his tools, his hand. And in fact, modern art has produced works—innumerable and admirable works. And for all his anguish, Cézanne did realize.

Confusedly aware of that basic necessity for a work of art to manifest and maintain itself as a rich and organic product of workmanship, modern artists have dreamed, and do dream, of seeing themselves identified by society as craftsmen, and qualified craftsmen. A craftsman qualifies by his métier; and by demonstrating that he knows rules proper to his métier, the artist inevitably determines his personal genius—not by rules imposed in any way from outside, but evolving inside the métier itself from the nature of the material worked and from adapting this material, at last, to a style in art.

This social restoration of the artist's métier goes along with the rehabilitation of the notion of the craftsman. The term "masterpiece" belongs less to the vocabulary of the artist than of the artisan. Doubtless the artist's masterpiece, and especially the modern artist's, appears at first glance like the fruit of theoretical speculation, the discovery of a new world of sensibility, a system of freakish forms, a stroke of fantasy, the exhibition of a unique, strange, unbalanced mind. It also is, and should be, and purports to be, a thing well-made, a masterpiece in the craftsman's sense, an artifact: and let us think of it as an artifact, a thing worked up. Worked up, indeed, by methods simpler than those at the command of the powerful and complex industry of our day with all its apparatus of vested interests, offices, and services, but analogous to its products, and no less deserving esteem, worthy in every way of inspiring pride in its maker had he, like the craftsman of yesterday or the skilled worker of our own age, been the one to make it alone. For this reason, today's painters are anxious to train themselves in the crafts one calls "applied," ceramics and glasswork, whose products are devoted to practical use. Many—and among them, the best—have turned to tapestry. And everyone realizes that they have fully revived this old French craft after a century of decline, and have given it a luster equal to that of its most brilliant epochs. Talent has lost nothing in submitting to the rules of a craft. On the contrary, it has shown itself and continues to show itself precisely there, in endless variety. Our admirable revivers of tapestry...have tackled their work by accepting the strictest demands of this métier as it was practiced in its purest days...in contrast with that virtuosity and bravura into which it was allowed to fall while seeking to imitate the iridescent nuances of painting—namely, while encroaching upon the realm of a neighboring métier. But what a lesson a true, honest métier that knows itself and keeps its bounds, its logic, its terms, brings to the talented creator—what a chance to develop a severe and robust power.

(pp. 405-408)

Quite a reclamation of the artifact here. LeRoi eat your heart out?

Even with everything else having become abstract,
and artifacts are definitionally concrete,
no matter what they are thought to portray or represent

In so being, the artifact testifies also to the artist's concrete existence

happily somewhere beyond the mere
depth of a cry
and happily somewhere short of
the powerful and complex industry of our day with all its apparatus of vested interests, offices, and services
The artifact hits the spot that postindustrialism forgot.

As such perhaps the artifact, now (certainly not always), also is
the result of certain attitudes, certain specific ways of thinking about the world
as LeRoi says is true of
Negro music

Now, why should this answer-in-search-of-a-question be available only to
I'm not asking this for my own sake

tho several people have pointed out to me
I also evince
certain attitudes
of which
the result
is quite emblematic.

It would be unfair to LeRoi to demand him to account for concerns such as Jean raises, and vice versa, so far are each writer's own authentic interests and objectives from those of the other. Both are at least consistent in their means and ends, even as they could undoubtedly plug some sizable blind spots by paying each other more heed. But just as LeRoi finds a certain narrowness of orientation in evidence in the white establishment of his day, so we may notice (do we really have to try all that hard?) a similar narrowness in his own orientation. The above passage from Jean, encountered purely by chance as this series was in preparation, in fact presents a near-ideal foil.

LeRoi is basically interested in the métier of being Black. Not that he nor anyone else would be caught dead applying such an overwrought loanword to the particular hypothesis he is interested in pursuing; and yet, most everything Jean says above about the métier, and most everything LeRoi says about being Black, all of this does suggest that the two are presenting similar arguments about similar social dynamics with similar ends in mind.

Proceeding from the initial fact of unspeakable violence,
Negro Music in White America
is a music subsumed,
nearly unknown, useless, nameless
an abnormal and subversive venture
of some variety or another.

To LeRoi's point(s)

we can easily see why this worthy
Negro music
could not be
recognizable and acceptable in the monumental unity of a culture
because there was no such
to which this music might have addressed itself.

Actually, LeRoi does not say too much about address per se. He does however return frequently to questions of expression.
If we think of African music as regards its intent, we must see that it differed from Western music in that it was a purely functional music. Borneman lists some basic types of songs common to West African cultures: songs used by young men to influence women...; songs used by workers to make their tasks easier; songs used by older men to prepare the adolescent boys for manhood, and so on. "Serious" Western music, except for early religious music, has been strictly an "art" music. One would not think of any particular use for Haydn's symphonies, except perhaps the "cultivation of the soul."
[Gotta love how he makes it sound so terrible. Those soul cultivators really should get to work laboring, influencing women, and frat-hazing their adolescent sons! Raise your hand if that sounds like a good time?!]
"Serious music" (a term that could only have extra-religious meaning in the West) has never been an integral part of the Westerner's life; no art has been since the Renaissance. Of course, before the Renaissance, art could find its way into the lives of almost all the people because all art issued from the Church, and the Church was at the very center of Western man's life. But the discarding of the religious attitude for the "enlightened" concepts of the Renaissance also created the schism between what was art and what was life. It was, and is, inconceivable in the African culture to make a separation between music, dancing, song, the artifact, and a man's life or his worship of his gods. Expression issued from life, and was beauty.
[Here is the crucial line. By "crucial" I mean the line whose moral ramifications have been altered the most drastically by everything that has changed since 1963. By which I mean, expression is now, even leaving aside its unsightly epistemological baggage, quite ugly. Expression can no longer be beauty after it has been so used and abused. Expression after Keeping Up With The Kardashians is something in the ballpark of writing poetry after Auschwitz. But certainly this has not always been the case, and certainly people have managed to continue writing poetry without actually being complicit in crimes against humanity. I am willing to indulge at least that far.]
But in the West, the "triumph of the economic mind over the imaginative," as Brooks Adams said, made possible this dreadful split between art and life. Hence, a music that is an "art" music as distinguished from something someone would whistle while tilling a field.
(pp. 28-29)
[He calls this "dreadful!" Show of hands, who wants to go listen to Haydn, and who wants to go till a field?!]

There is also this harrowing passage (considered previously):
The Western concept of the cultivation of the voice is foreign to African or Afro-American music. In the West, only the artifact can be beautiful, mere expression cannot be thought to be.


Desmond always insists he is playing an instrument, that it is an artifact separate from himself. Parker did not admit that there was any separation between himself and the agent he had chosen as his means of self-expression.
(pp. 30-31)

Considering in hindsight the direction that things actually have taken in the intervening half-century, there is something of an irony for contemporary readers in the way LeRoi and Jean have respectively mapped this particular territory


Jean has tried
(perhaps unconvincingly)
to reassert the element of


in the work of the
modern artist
this at a time when the accusation of non-address
(or address only to elites,
or to fellow professionals)
was beginning to wear itself out for having been repeated endlessly

and meanwhile

LeRoi has tried
(quite convincingly as a matter of reportage,
but begging all manner of political and moral questions)
to reassert the purely personal,
nature of pre-Jazz
Negro music
music which was less an


it would seem,

than a

message in a bottle.

As both writers are aware, they are trading in ideals and reductions. The reality, of course, is that most "modern art" has been summarily rejected by nonelite audiences, while the Blues went on to form the basis of American Popular Music for the better part of The American Century.

One way out of this irony is to decide that the intellectuals (of all races!) are full of shit, to check out on the intellectuals, and to check in on the Kardashians. If only for sport, I personally find it more interesting to attempt a reclamation of the ideals: in the case of the modern artist, I think the accusation of non-address to an audience was never either valid or constructive; and in the case of the Blues, I think the ground has shifted sufficiently that at least some version of the art-life division has more to recommend it now than it has ever had before. This is what I think, because it is what I want to think. Demonstrating its empirical plausibility is a longer-term project at which we can only hope to nibble here.