11 December 2021

The Radical Restriction of Perspective?

Christopher Lasch
The Minimal Self (1984)
Philip Roth once observed, before this kind of observation became a cliché, that the writer's imagination falters in the face of contemporary "actuality," which "is continually outdoing our talents." ... Our culture "tosses up figures almost daily that are the envy of any novelist.". ... In their bafflement and disgust, many writers turn away from the "grander social and political phenomena of our times"...and "take the self as their subject": the "sheer fact of self, the vision of the self as inviolate, powerful, and nervy, self as the only real thing in an unreal environment.
(p. 130)

When social reality becomes imaginatively unmanageable, the imagination takes refuge, as we have seen, in self-defensive survival strategies: exactly the kind of strategies also adopted by the contemporary writer and artist, according to Roth, in their attempt to keep the artistic enterprise alive in an age of extremity. Overwhelmed by the cruelty, disorder, and sheer complexity of modern history, the artist retreats into a solipsistic mode of discourse that represents "not so much an attempt to understand the self," in Roth's words, as an attempt "to assert it." He conducts his own struggle for survival as an artist, under conditions that have made it more and more difficult to transcribe any shared experience or common perceptions of the world, undermined the conventions of artistic realism, and given rise to a type of art that no longer seems to refer to anything outside itself.
(p. 131)

Again and again, Lasch laments these
conditions that have made it more and more difficult to transcribe any shared experience or common perceptions of the world
This of course cuts both ways. As indispensible as some shared experience might be, it is also true that many common perceptions of the world were never quite as common as once believed; also that perfect shared-ness can be achieved only by force or coercion, hence we ultimately have to learn to live with at least some diversity of perception even on the local level.

These are central themes of Postmodernism per se. Here Lasch considers the postmodern condition through the lens of selfhood. He finds the common perceptions of the group necessary to proper formation of the self. But I think there are implications here for justice too, as in his own later anti-progressive formulation that,
Hope does not require a belief in progress, but rather in justice.
(The True and Only Heaven, p. 80)
His assertion, from the same work, that
the capacity for loyalty is stretched too thin when it tries to attach itself to the hypothetical solidarity of the whole human race
(p. 36)
would seem, however, to confine justice itself, like culture, production, and just about everything else, to be operative only on the community level, and thus to leave inter-community justice issues essentially unresolvable, or perhaps to assume that they would rarely arise under a regime of decentralized "self-help" and "self-sufficiency."

I recently wrote, in effect, that the potential to leave behind all of the outmoded and unjust common perceptions is precisely what inclines me toward a positive view of so-called postmodernism, this despite the fact that I have no use for much (maybe even a majority) of the other tenets which might be placed under this venerable heading. Reading Lasch clarifies the issue somewhat: the problem with the deconstruction or decentering of received knowledge is not that this is never warranted, but rather that it is warranted only where justice is at stake. I'm sure that sounds painfully banal, and basically it is. It is one way, nonetheless, that I would propose to seek a mediation between Lasch's brilliant political observations and their seeming dependence on the return of a world that is not coming back, and which we may not want to have back anyway.

Turning to the comparatively parochial concerns of art and artists, I would certainly question the relationship of
the conventions of artistic realism
to shared experience and common-ness of perception. The paradox of realism per se is that it does not, in fact, reflect common perceptions retrospectively so much as it serves to create them prospectively. Even the most banal realism makes a statement just by being realist. It is the great virtue of postmodern theory to have insisted that perfect neutrality of statement is not possible even here, and that the statement is always a statement of a particular individual and only tenuously, if at all, a statement of a whole "society," all at once as it were. (Lasch's own contempt for the offloading of personal responsibility from individuals onto a vague notion of "society" is apt here. If this cannot be accepted in the broad realm of conduct-of-life, how can it be accepted regarding art-as-conduct?)

Neutrality is elusive, I would also insist, even when the work
no longer seems to refer to anything outside itself.
At the risk of parsing this too literally, I would agree that this "seems" to be case much more often than it is the case. I would perhaps even channel my inner postmodernist and question whether it is not always the case, with such "refer[ences]" as exist simply awaiting an observer who is able to perceive and articulate them; the corollary being, of course, that just because you can doesn't mean you should. The widespread disregard of this corollary is nothing less than a justice issue for artists, and it hinges precisely on the fact that people do not always perceive things in common. Plurality of perspective, so difficult to navigate in the political dealings of a democracy, is generative in the realm of art; generative, that is, not just of various artworks but of the diverse responses to them, reactions against them, tributes paid to them, and so on.

It is to Lasch's great deteriment that he retraces the footsteps of so many irresponsible dead-tree art critics in drawing a direct causal link between the cruelty, disorder, and sheer complexity of modern history and the advent of what he sees as a solipsistic mode of discourse in minimalist art. He treats reference as an objective fact, whereas really it is subjective and ephemeral. Just as we can only compare to what we already know, so art cannot "refer" to anything with which an audience is unfamiliar. Without denying outright either the possibility or the usefulness of common perceptions, it is hard to imagine that such asceticism of reference could be functional (or, again, just) even in the Laschian self-governing village. This presupposes a restriction of perspective to rival that of any painter of blank canvases.

Contemporary art is an art of extremity not because it takes extreme situations as its subject—though much of it does that too—but because the experience of extremity threatens to undermine the very possibility of an imaginative interpretation of reality.

The only art that seems appropriate to such an age...is an anti-art or minimal art, where minimalism refers not just to a particular style in an endless succession of styles but to a widespread conviction that art can survive only by a drastic restriction of its field of vision: the radical "restriction of perspective" recommended by authorities on the subject as the survival strategy par excellence.
(p. 131)

The incoherent conflation of anti-art with minimal art is notable here. Restriction of perspective is one thing, restriction of function is quite another; and function-al-ism per se would have it that various arts cannot expand (nor, I would say, can they restrict) their fields of vision infinitely. As Lewis Mumford might observe here (that is, if he did not share Lasch's contempt for all things avant-garde), the perspective of an art form is restricted most drastically of all by technical considerations. Here artists and critics can, for once, be counted upon to make common cause, that is, to deny the role of Mumford's "technics" and to exalt the ideal of "art" as direct "expression" or "communication" or "reference." Only from such irrational fantasies as this can an artist like Rothko, for example, be put forth by Lasch as having narrowed rather than expanded our perspective or broken with the paradigm of realism. In fact, this kind of abstraction is the only realist aesthetic and the most direct art, precisely because its realism and its directness operate on the technical rather than on the communicative level. That an abstract work might refer to nothing with which the audience is already familiar is rather beside the point. In a just world where both artist and audience are afforded due respect, this is a characteristic of the audience, not of the work. There is no question of being "initiated" (or not) into certain strictures of connoisseurship. If you can see, hear, read, think, feel, then you have already been "initiated." A painting can only be truly "self-referrential" when the observer has had their eyes gouged out.

Of all the elements of the high modernist platform which have been broadly rejected, the position I have just taken is, I think, worthy of being considered the very most broadly rejected tenet, more so even than the aesthetic elements, which have at least found a home in the postmodern grab bag of commercial parlor tricks. This rejection is, however, utterly incoherent. It finds in such rhetoric as above only the unforgivable gesture of the artist turning their back to the audience, literally in a few infamous cases, but metaphorically in all of them. Yet when I say that the absence of reference is a characteristic of the audience and not of the work, I say nothing about success or failure, morality or immorality, conformity or nonconformity. When I say this, I do not tell anyone what or how to think; in fact I make explicit my reluctance to do this, a reluctance which, along with humility, responsibility, self-knowledge, and a few other indispensible personal qualities, is typically in short supply among both artists and critics. I would like artworks to be judged, and for people to be judged on their general conduct of life, but I would not like for people to be judged on whether or not they "get" the references of this or that work of art. If there have been "modernist" enclaves throughout recent history where this attitude has indeed persisted, then perhaps that is just one more outmoded elitism of not-so common perception that postmodernism can be of assistance in dismantling.

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