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.

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 M├ętier"
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.