21 December 2021

Mumford—Art and Technics (xvi)

[Prefatory note: I struggled mightily with this final installment of the series, so much so that what should have been a centerpiece became an afterthought. It remains both incomplete and overlong. It is at least completed somewhat by recent posts, at the cost of adding verbiage rather than paring it. Such is the content-rich, editor-poor world we live in. Enjoy, if you can.]

Lewis Mumford
Art and Technics (1952)
The general effect of this multiplication of graphic symbols has been to lessen the impact of art itself. ... In order to survive in this image-glutted world, it is necessary for us to devaluate the symbol and to reject every aspect of it but the purely sensational one. For note, the very repetition of the stimulus would make it necessary for us in self-defense to empty it of meaning if the process of repetition did not, quite automatically, produce this result. Then, by a reciprocal twist, the emptier a symbol is of meaning, the more must its user depend upon mere repetition and mere sensationalism to achieve his purpose. This is a vicious circle, if there ever was one. ...people must, to retain any degree of autonomy and self-direction, achieve a certain opacity, a certain insensitiveness, a certain protective thickening of the hide, in order not to be overwhelmed and confused by the multitude of demands that are made upon their attention.
(p. 98)
...we only half-see, half-understand what is going on; for we should be neurotic wrecks if we tried to give all the extraneous mechanical stimuli that impinge upon us anything like our full attention. That habit perhaps protects us from an early nevous breakdown; but it also protects us from the powerful impact of genuine works of art, for such works demand our fullest attention, our fullest participation, our most individualized and re-creative response. What we settle for, since we must close our minds, are the bare sensations; and that is perhaps one of the reasons that the modern artist, defensively, has less and less to say. In order to make sensations seem more important than meanings, he is compelled to use processes of magnification and distortion, similar to the stunts used by the big advertiser to attract attention. So the doctine of quantification, Faster and Faster, leads to the sensationalism of Louder and Louder; and that in turn, as it affects the meaning of the symbols used by the artist, means Emptier and Emptier. This is a heavy price to pay for mass production and the artist's need to compete with mass production.
(pp. 98-99)


to devaluate the symbol and to reject every aspect of it but the purely sensational one

In order to make sensations seem more important than meanings

The word sensation here could be read two ways, and indeed it should be read both ways to fully understand the argument. Broadly, there is sensation as against intellect, feeling as against thinking, the immediate, aesthetic, intuitive, sensory, visceral part of the artistic experience as against the consciously-considered, reflective, intellectual one. More narrowly, there is the colloquialized sense borne of classic commercialism, sensation as in "sensationalism," "overnight sensation," etc., indicating an appeal that is wider, more immediate, more intense, and (probably) less rational than the mere standard-issue hit. Each cultural "sensation" raises the threshold of human sensation, against which striving imagizers progressively turn up the volume in order to be heard over each other.

The colloquial usage is an especially culturebound one, to be sure, idiomatic to time and place; and so the confluence of verbiage between this idiom and the more literal one gives a strong indication about the era in which they have became conflated: in a society where marketing, broadly construed, permeates most every public-facing thought and action, it is neither the rational nor the intellectual but the visceral which is the most effective tool for commanding attention. To create a sensation, you must appeal to sensation.

I propose three co-determinative aspects of this:

(1) Reasoned response can be consciously shut down by the subject more easily than visceral response; and indeed, we tend to "plug" our ears-of-reason when the stimulus conflicts with a strong existing belief. Conversely, the Lizard Brain and the autonomic nervous system will respond, in their way, to any stimulus that is strong enough, whether we like it or not. (Or, to borrow Kahneman's verbiage, perhaps System 1 has done its work before System 2 has even had a chance to notice.) What's more, our senses are profoundly unequal in the anatomies and motor skills which are available to inhibit stimuli: the vast superiority of the eyelids to the uninnervated cartilage surrounding the ear and nasal canals shows that the relative "dominance" of the senses is mirrored in their respective mechanisms of inhibition. (Or is it simply that danger is loud and smelly?) Sensation's only kill-switch is inhibition of the stimulus, and the default setting of this switch is "on." It is thus easier to catch the target audience in a state of visceral receptivity than in one of rational receptivity.

(2) Reasoned response is inherently slower than the visceral kind, hence it is at a disadvantage wherever stimuli compete for attention and where response time is significant. The fabrication of urgency is a staple of classical salescraft. Making the sale means preempting reason from joining the customer's inner dialog.

(3) Reasoned response is conditioned by culture, whereas visceral response is of animal origin. If "logic" can usually be abstracted rather without incident, reasonableness per se may nonetheless differ drastically from person to person. Viscerality, meanwhile, is immediate, often unwilling, and far less susceptible to cultural mediation. Whereas human psychological diversity is the supreme obstacle to mass cultural appeal, human visceral uniformity is as close to universal as any properly human phenomenon can be. At mass scale, culturally-mediated response is intractable whereas visceral response can be managed. Hence mass manipulation must tend toward the visceral in order to be effective.

[Later: Kahneman's book would seem to support (1) and (2) vigorously but it leaves some doubt about (3). Certainly his System 1 is anything but immune to conditioning. At the same time, for Wexler in Brain and Culture, e.g., there are, at least to my layman's sense, plenty of functionally universal aspects of human psychology which could furnish support for (3). To be continued.]


For Mumford at his most breezy, formal art essentially issues from a puerile version of the marketing orientation; and so, in such market-oriented terms, modern art is a predictably perverse response to the perverse incentives that mechanical record-keeping has created. There is nonetheless the great hope, in Mumford's view, of civilizing influences acting upon this puerile art-mind, of social and environmental influences by which raw unmediated desire may evolve into the desire (far less acute perhaps) to replace one's parents in the existing social structure. "Like sexual love" itself, however, "this development likewise brings with it the same danger of premature arrest or fixation at one of its infantile or adolescent phases" (29), thereby threatening the existing social structure with dissolution.

Obviously this assessment owes something to the depth psychology of the time, and obviously adult exponents of formal art practices are bound to find that it mistakes superficial resemblance for deep-psychological machinations; perhaps also that the constellation of idiomatic expressions surrounding maturity in fact reveals a strong ambivalence about Growing Up, of which Mumford's stoic paternalism captures only the conservative extreme; perhaps also that truly selfless artists, like nice guys, finish last. I realize that this last bit is indeed quite puerile, even by my standards. What I mean to raise here, specifically, is the possibility that the external social structures and agents to which artists are expected, by Mumford and many others, merely to submit themselves as a settled matter of holding the fabric of society together, these structures and agents may, perhaps, in some instances, reasonably be judged by artists' rational faculties, if not also by their visceral ones, to be unworthy of submitting to, whether on moral, aesthetic, cultural, or any other valid grounds. This is the issue that drove Freud and Adler apart: when is illness properly seen as a failure to adapt, and when is it evidence of a society that is poorly adapted to people's needs?

One would not know from his venomous attack on modern art here that Mumford was in fact among his century's most learned and eloquent spokespeople on the question of properly adapting the lived environment to human needs. Modern art seems to have threatened his own peace of mind so severely that he couldn't help but lash out at it as part of the problem. He would be neither the first nor the last to feel this way. In a cosmic sense, all can be forgiven in such matters of taste and culture. In this case, though, Mumford takes two tacks which on the earthly level can be called into question: he rationalizes aesthetic judgments in polemical form; and he reads artworks as discursive statements without giving adequate thought to their abstract gestures.

Throughout his writings Mumford returns often to his architect friend's saying that "it takes a great client to make a great building." The important fact that "great clients" don't grow on trees seems to have been lost here among the vitriol. He merely assumes that child-artists who neglect to enter into partnership with such clients must be either stupid or crazy (and perhaps are mere products of their environment in one or both respects). He assumes the Adlerian posture and justifies it with Freudian theory.

For my part, I am now racking my brain to name a single "great client" I have had during my first two decades of professional toil, and I'm having trouble coming up with one. I once asked a group of commiserating coworkers, trolling them mildly, why they never tell any happy stories from their side hustles playing for contracted events, back-up bands, and recording sessions. I already knew the answer: "Because there aren't any" happy stories from these sorts of engagements. I have never lived in a world where Mumford's "selfless" ideal felt achievable to me, not even in the rarefied air of niche culture, and certainly not in the commercial sector. For me, working for "clients" has always involved not gentle compromise but rather total dissolution of the self, of morality, and of identity. Perhaps I am indeed a victim of structure, or perhaps I am a walking failure of agency. In either case, I suspect, though I can't know for sure, that the generation of modernists Mumford so despised did indeed have qualms of precisely this kind about the world they were thrust into. There is copious primary evidence to support this notion. But this alone hardly makes it possible to read such meaning into their works. The epistemological obstacles to this must be dealt with before any sociological or aesthetic analysis can be built upon it.

[Later: Well gee, did I really write the line
total dissolution of the self, of morality, and of identity
two years before reading any Lasch? That is pretty striking.]

It is on the surface somewhat more plausible to think that we can read the general integration or disintegration of a culture through the integration (or lack thereof) of its artists, the freest of free-will agents, into its central conceits; this not based on particular content but rather on general posture. As against the more literal, socio-determinist streak in art criticism such as Mumford evinces here, this seems to me more easily accepted, but only by using vagueness to purchase a modicum of plausibility. There is no doubt that the more radical "modernist" projects were necessarily of an oppositional nature, a fact which is lost in the baffling accusation of their having "less and less to say." As little as may be "said" by splattered paint or silent music, I cannot imagine that the oppositional quality was so lost on too many contemporary observers. One question is whether such modernist aesthetics can (or should) survive if decoupled from the oppositional posture and the historical moment which once accompanied them. The validity and effectiveness of such opposition is, however, a rather different question.

Ironically, for as much disgust as Mumford evinces here, the deterministic nature of his account also "determines" a certain reluctance to assign blame to artists as individuals. He cannot quite credit them with making lemonade from lemons, nor can he blame them for failing to do this. Their fate, it would seem, is sealed by forces beyond their control. Bad societies can produce only bad art. Perhaps at some distant time in the future, with the aid of sufficient historical data and computing power alike, such an assertion as this can be properly evaluated. As it stands, I am not convinced, for one, that it can even be evaluated; that is, I would question whether it is a testable hypothesis in the properly scientific sense, even if some heuristic notion of "good" and "bad" was fixed in advance. Such theories live on the contested borderlands of reason, entering the city only by stealth and being summarily expelled the moment they let their guard down. Unable to know if they are true, nor even which questions they purport to answer, we are left to ponder their mere plausibility. Many intelligent people find them plausible. I do not.

An artist (or any citizen) who felt, under such "bad" circumstances, that things were in fact perfectly fine, or even good as ever (and make no mistake that plenty of such people can always be found), must such mindless optimists not be judged much more harshly than those whose human sensibilities led them to react against their circumstances? The differing moral and ethical ramifications of these two paths necessitate that some notion of "free will" be accepted, if only as a social fiction, to serve as antidote to any "determinism" which would render the distinction between them invisible. And if the artists, as one constituency among many, have for their part had less and less to say as things have gotten worse and worse, we might do well to keep in mind the well-worn saying about actions speaking louder than words.

Would we wish it otherwise? Mumford would not, I don't think, for he finds almost as much contempt for the Polyannas as for the radicals.
The healthy art of our time is either the mediocre production of people too fatuous or complacent to be aware of what has been happening to the world--or it is the work of spiritual recluses,...artists who bathe tranquilly in the quiet springs of traditional life, but who avoid the strong, turbid currents of contemporary existence, which might knock them down or carry them away. These artists no doubt gain in purity and intensity by that seclusion; but by the same token, they lose something in strength and general breadth of appeal.
(p. 147)

Countervailing these tendencies, "modern art" has in fact opened up whole new vistas of exploration vis-a-vis visceral sensation, and it is undeniable that this was quite often done for its own sake and for no better reason. That said, Mumford's axe-grinding ways have clearly gotten the better of him on this particular topic. One may appeal here to an observation he himself revels in making about all kinds of historical developments: it is undeniable that a certain visceral escalation was already detectable prior to the "modern" era. Certainly it is already evident in the trajectory from, say, Mozart to Beethoven to Wagner to Mahler, to cite just one facile, close-at-hand example. A technological-determinist explanation has some plausibility here too; but if we are to live well with technology rather than merely living in fear of it (and a close reading of Mumford shows that he is indeed of the former rather than the latter inclination), then the question is not one of cutting sensation off at the knees but rather of applying a historically-grounded aesthetic sense to the full range of newly available sensations.

the symbols that most deeply express the emotions and feelings of our age are a succession of dehumanized nightmares, transposing into esthetic form either the horror and violence or the vacuity and despair of our time
(p. 7)
Mumford appeals to Picasso's Guernica to illustrate this point, which raises a host of problems. Most obviously, "great" works are not necessarily representative simply because they are great. More likely, "greatness" is not representative of an entire milieu or historical period. This is not just a gotcha technicality. The conceit to socio-deterministic reading of art depends entirely upon this notion of representativeness; otherwise it would be possible to cherrypick evidence in favor of just about any interpretation of the prevailing social conditions, because you would be able to find a few works here and there (probably even a few good works) with which to support your assertion.

For Rudolf Arnheim, meanwhile, in his monograph on Guernica, the fact that "every work of art is symbolic by its very nature" begets a constant temptation towards "the error of reductionism: the belief that the true meaning lies always at the deepest level to which the enquirer can dig." (Ch. II) Predictably, psychoanalytic interpreters come in as the worst offenders, which serves well enough to illustrate the point but leaves aside the broader question of how and why techniques for studying people might be applied to the study of their artworks; the same question, that is, which haunts even the most responsible, "modern" sociological acccounts.

For Arnheim, Guernica's "reality level", or "the level of abstraction at which an image represents reality," is very close to the surface. That is, "the "story" of the mural makes obvious sense at the level of the human implications of a military assault." So, whether or not Mumford is correct in his socio-deterministic view of art generally, such a tack is (or ought to be) superfluous regarding this particular work, whose appeal to sensation had, in its immediate moment at least, obvious (and obviously valid) ends.

This line of thinking comports well with the misgivings I have laid out here, but I don't find Arnheim wholly coherent either. In the case of artworks whose demonstrable "reality level" is, we might say, quite low, Arnheim not only permits but in fact "requires the perceiver to look for a more abstract meaning" (my italics). And so he is here willing to accept, conditionally, even the briskest flights of psychoanalytic fancy: they "can neither be proved nor disproved." Yet "it seems evident that the level of interpretation is correctly chosen" if the artwork is just this unnaturalistic. There is a comfortably logical flavor to all of this, always seductive as we float in the sea of aesthetic subjectivity, but there is no concurrent effort whatsoever to flesh out the role and justification for "interpretation" in the first place. The closest we get is that, when a work "makes obvious sense" we are to restrain ourselves; to the extent that another work makes less sense, to that same extent are we required to translate this unreality back into some other ersatz reality; it matters not, seemingly, which one or how real it is itself, just that it has a high "reality level" (as do many psychoanalytic interpretations without, nonetheless, being scientifically testable).

All the arrows here point to a set of psychological assumptions about the viewer which are, I would insist, not to be taken for granted quite so easily. Realism (or realistic-ness) has been made into a point of psychological equilibrium: the further a painting takes us from plausible natural events, to that same extent do we become disequilibriated, and thus to that same extent do we not just want but need to find an interpretation which, regardless of its truth value or explanatory power, makes us feel better about the whole ordeal. In this account, art playfully threatens to Disturb The Comfortable without ever doing so in the end. Any disturbance, so to speak, is reduced to a mere prompt, at first sight of which we are to return ourselves as quickly as possible to the comfort of "reality." But really, this insistence on "reality" against abstraction is every bit the protective thickening of the hide as is any more general attenuation of sensation. If there is a higher purpose for such a defensive posture, we are not told what it is.

Most curious of all, I think, is that Mumford could surely have found other "modern" works which better support his views, and that the work he chose to illustrate them comes off as a poor choice. Are there not plenty of modern works which more truly display empty appeals to sensation and/or infantile cries for attention, works which are less famous yet more representative of this particular trend? It is easy enough to imagine that both the familiarity and the topicality of Guernica made it more attractive as material for a "lecture" than it might have been for a scholarly monograph. One can only hope this is the real reason for its choice here. Still, the intellectual and psychological details of this kind of error are never negligible, emblematic as they themselves are of very particular attitudes and viewpoints which, dare I say, are no less distinctive of time and place than any properly artistic statement. In that respect, what we have here is not actually Arnheim's "error of reductionism" but in fact its opposite, a facile reading of surfaces as a succession of dehumanized nightmares or some such thing.


Mumford's breezy treatment of Picasso's Guernica is breezy enough to deal only in the broadest of social changes and conditions. The phrase the wounds and scars of our time is, once again, far too broad: the wounds and scars in this case are exceedingly specific ones, as Mumford himself surely knew from his own involvement in bringing the mural to New York.

Even if this type of destruction was truly new and previously unimaginable, it is quite a stretch to think that there previously existed nothing so powerful in its own time and place as to affect artists in this way. It is of course impossible to believe that nothing quite so anguished and anguishing was ever experienced or witnessed just because it was never painted, sculpted, sung, written, or danced, nor because such works were simply not recognized as art. It is no affront to history, nor to justice, nor to art to observe that, clearly, things have been plenty bad enough, for plenty of people, plenty of times before, to suggest a statement such as Guernica. For Mumford, then, the mediation between the child-artist's Id and the strictures of civilization is a collegial mediation in times of imagistic scarcity, but it becomes violent in times of imagistic abundance. In the first case, any old artistic productions are inherently rare and exceptional enough to command attention, to soothe the Id, to placate the child; in the latter case, artworks must stoop to progressively baser appeals to animal instincts in direct proportion to the wider propagation of images in society; all of this because the ultmate statement that art makes is not "Look at this," but rather "Look at me."

If all of this is so, then a retreat from representation and narrative might, as I have not yet tired of suggesting, be most welcome. But here Mumford, the anti-idolator who nonetheless insists on the essentiality of the "esthetic symbol," can see only the same tantrum-throwing by the attention-starved child-artist, an appeal to pure novelty without even the redeeming quality of well-honed craft. If nothing else these passages lay bare just how drastically the ground would shift over the ensuing two decades. It was actually the generations who had not quite yet come of age in 1952 who took up explicitly the materials and techniques of advertising and salesmanship and presented them in the context of formal art institutions and practices. (Of course they relied upon these existing institutions and practices far more than most of them were willing to admit.) There is a certain absurdity, I think, in finding sensationalism in the work of a paint splattering abstractionist; or at least that is how it looks to me now with the benefit of much historical and cultural distance from the moment. The old jibe about child's play, misguided as it may be in narrow technical respects, is perhaps useful ammunition against the accusation of empty sensationalism, especially, as in this case, when the source of the two jibes is the same. If anyone can do it, then it is not quite sensational. Really the "sensation" was all in the break with convention and expectation, perhaps also in the general comportment of the principals rather apart from any properly aesthetic or technical considerations. It would be shocking to find that "society" had nothing to do with these developments. But what urgent question, really, is "society" the answer to?

It can be argued that I am paying way too much attention to these particular comments of Mumford's. They are not significant in the wider art-critical discourse, and they are not all that significant within his own oeuvre either. What I think is important about them, rather, is the possibility that they are widely-shared sentiments, and, as such, that in tandem with the more prevailing, learned critiques of modernism they really close the walls in on artists, so much so that I'm not sure who even among this cohort of critics would really want to live in the kind of society they idealize, no matter its technological capacities.

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