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.

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