Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Wait Till I Tell Your Mother About This, Young Man!

Fig. 1. Martha Rosler - Invasion, 2008

'War is only a cowardly escape from the problems of peace.'

Thomas Mann

Monday, June 29, 2009

A Larger Than Life Barometer Of Our Society's Virtue

Fig. 1. Jeon Joonho - The White House, 2005-2006

'So you think that money is the root of all evil. Have you ever asked what is the root of all money?'

Ayn Rand

* 'Money is the barometer of a society's virtue.' (Ayn Rand)

Sunday, June 28, 2009

There Are Many Ways To Hate The Things You Love

Fig. 1. Sam Riley (as Ian Curtis) in Control - d. Anton Corbijn, 2007

'People love as self-recognition what they hate as an accusation.'

Elias Canetti

Addendum #1: Music Video (click)

Joy Division - Transmission

Addendum #2: The Sunday Six (Relatively Recent)

Fig. 1. Mohamed Bourouissa - La fenêtre, 2005

Fig. 2. Mona Hatoum - Nature morte aux grenades, 2006-07

Fig. 3. Jeff Koons - Girl with Dolphin and Monkey, 2006

Fig. 4. Doug Aitken - Migration (still), 2008

Fig. 5. Gottfried Helnwein - Red Mouse 2, 2008

Fig. 6. Wim Delvoye - Torre, 2009

Saturday, June 27, 2009

To Bridges Burned Without Sorrow, Or Lamentations

Fig. 1. Jimi Hendrix

'To survive it is often necessary to fight, and to fight you have to dirty yourself.'

George Orwell

Friday, June 26, 2009

Don't Just Lie There, Woman. ... Look A Little Stupid!

Fig. 1. "Girlie" Postcard, c. 1940 (published by Asheville Post Card Co.)

'Any girl can look glamorous .... Just stand there and look stupid.'

Doris Day

Thursday, June 25, 2009

The Sweetest Lullaby Is The Refrain Of Goals In Hand

Fig. 1. Wedgwood (mold by Hoskins & Oliver in 1770, black basalt) - Somnus, c. 1774

'Take rest. A field that has rested gives a beautiful crop.'


Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Merci ... Anthony, Beatrix, Jaynie, Belinda And Chris

Fig. 1. Yayoi Kusama - Dots Obsession, 2004

'He who receives a benefit with gratitude repays the first installment on his debt.'


Merci ... Lisa, Jonathan, Alec, Mischa, Lilikoi And Me

Fig. 2. Tomas Saraceno - Flying Garden (detail), 2006

'When you're out of willpower you call on stubbornness, that's the trick.'

Henri Matisse

Merci ... Jana, Julian, Serge, Kate, Adam And George

Fig. 3. Alejandra Laviada Díez Barroso - Photo Sculptures, 2008

'I want it said of me by those who knew me best, that I always plucked a thistle and planted a flower where I thought a flower would grow.'

Abraham Lincoln

Merci ... Diane, Katie, Dive, Guille, Jade And Joseph

Fig. 4. Jim Lambie - MOMA floor, 2006

'destiny, n. A tyrant's authority for crime and fool's excuse for failure.'

Ambrose Bierce

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Bought Myself A Wooden Eye, 'Cause They Don't Cry

Fig. 1. Tom Sachs - Untitled (CE Wood Hasselblad), 2008

'Nothing is more terrible than activity without insight.'

Thomas Carlyle

Monday, June 22, 2009

When There Are No More Hells To Come Back From

Fig. 1. Frida Kahlo - The Little Deer, 1946

'Life does not need to mutilate itself in order to be pure.'

Simone Weil

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Horizons Are Not Limits, They Are Virgin Thresholds

Fig. 1. Joan Miró (1893-1983) - Blue I, 1962

'The blue of the sky, if we were to examine its many image values, would require a long study in which we would see all the types of material imagination being determined according to the basic elements of water, fire, earth, and air. In other words, we could divide poets into four classifications by their response to the single theme of celestial blue:

Those who see in an immobile sky a flowing liquid that comes to life with the smallest cloud.

Those who experience the blue sky as though it were and enormous flame - "searing" blue, as the Comtesse de Noailles describes it.

Those who contemplate the sky as if it were a solidified blue, a painted vault - "compact and hard azure", as the Comtesse de Noailles again says.

Finally those who can truly participate in the aerial nature of celestial blue.

Of course, besides the great poets who instinctively follow these basic inspirations, it would be easy to discover, with such a common image, all the rhymers for whom "blue sky" is always a concept, never a primary image. Poetry about the blue sky suffers an enormous loss on this account. We can almost appreciate Musset's scorn when he called "blue" the stupid colour. In the works of artificial poets, at least, it is the colour of pretentious innocence from which come sapphires or flax blossoms. Such images are not, of course, banned: poetry is just as much the participation of the large in the small as it is the small in the large. But no one experiences this participation by juxtaposing a terrestrial and an aerial name. Only a great poet can discover naturally, without copying a literary example, blue sky in a wildflower.

But, leaving aside the facile polemics against false or worn-out images, I would like to reflect on a fact that has often struck me. As I have read many different kinds of poets, what has surprised me was how rare were the images in which the blue sky was truly aerial. This rarity is due, first of all, to the fact that aerial imagination is much rarer than the imagination of fire, earth, or water. But even more important is the fact that, even when the immense, distant blue infinity is felt by an aerial soul, it needs to be materialised in order to be incorporated into a literary image. The word blue designates, but it does not render. The problem of the image of the blue sky is completely different for the painter than for the poet. For a writer, if the blue sky is not merely a background, if it is a poetic object, only a metaphor can bring it to life. The poet's task is not to translate a colour, but to make us dream the colour. The blue sky is so simple that no one thinks he can oneirise it without materialising it. But this process of materialisation goes too far. The blue sky is made too hard, too glaring, too searing, too compact, too burning, and too brilliant. Often the sky looks at us too fixedly. We attribute too much substance and constancy to it because the soul does not become a part of the life of primary substance. We tonalise the sky's blue by making it "vibrate" like a sonorous crystal, whereas, for truly aerial souls, there is only the sound of a breath. Thus, with excessive intensity, the Comtesse de Noailles writes: "Today the blue is so strong that it blinds you if you look at it too long; it crackles, it whirls, it becomes filled with golden tendrils, with hot frost, with sharp and radiant diamonds, with arrows, with silver flies . . . "

The hallmark of what is truly aerial is to be found, in my opinion, in another direction. It is, in fact, based on the dynamics of dematerialisation. the substantial imagination of air is truly active only on a dynamics of dematerialisation. The blue of the sky is aerial when it is dreamed as a colour that pales a bit, like a pallor that seeks finesse, a finesse that we imagine as yielding beneath our fingers like a delicate fabric as we caress, in Paul Valéry's words:

The mysterious texture of the utmost height.

That is when the blue sky counsels us to be as calm and as light as it is itself:

The sky above the roof, is
So blue, so calm!

sighs Verlaine from the depths of his prison where he is still under the weight of unforgiven memories. This calm can be filled with melancholy. The dreamer feels that the blue sky will never be a possessed good. "What good are the symbols of a basic and comforting mountaineering since I shall not, this evening, reach the blue, that blue which is so aptly called sky blue?"

But it is by following the scale of dematerialisation of celestial blue that we can see aerial reverie at work. Then we will understand that it is an aerial Einfühlung: the fusion of a dreamer with as undifferentiated a universe as possible, on that is blue and gentle, infinite and formless, with a minimum of substance.'

Gaston Bachelard

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Perfunctory Lessons In Advance Of The Kissing Hour

Fig. 1. Anca Daucikova - Kissing Hour (video), c. 2000

'I wasn't kissing her, I was whispering in her mouth.'

Chico Marx

Friday, June 19, 2009

Cindy Sherman: Through A Glass Kaleidoscopically

Fig. 1. Cindy Sherman - Untitled #424, 2004

'Satire is a sort of glass, wherein beholders do generally discover everybody's face but their own.'

Jonathan Swift

Thursday, June 18, 2009

The Fragile Afterlives Of Music, Words, And Images

Fig. 1. Edouard Manet - Gare Saint-Lazare (1873)

'The young man will smile on the canvas for as long as the canvas lasts. Blood throbs under the skin of the woman's face, the wind shakes a branch, a group of men prepare to leave. In a novel or film, the young man will stop smiling, but he will start to smile again when we turn this page or that moment. Art preserves, and it is the only thing in the world that is preserved. It preserves and is preserved itself (quid juris?), although it actually lasts no longer than its support and materials - stone, canvas, chemical colour, and so on (quid facti?). The young girl maintains the pose that she has had for five thousand years, a gesture that no longer depends on whoever made it. The air still has the turbulence, the gust of wind, and the light that it had that day last year, and it no longer depends on whoever was breathing it that morning. If art preserves it does not do so like industry, by adding a substance to make the thing last. The thing became independent of its "model" from the start, but it is also independent of other possible personae who are themselves artists-things, personae of painting breathing the air of this painting. And it is no less independent of the viewer or hearer, who only experience it after, if they have the strength for it. What about the creator? It is independent of the creator through the self-positing of the created, which is preserved in itself. What is preserved - the thing or the work of art - is a bloc of sensations, that is to say, a compound of percepts and affects.

Percepts are no longer perceptions; they are independent of a state of those who experience them. Affects are no longer feelings or affections; they go beyond the strength of those who undergo them. Sensations, percepts, and affects are beings whose validity lies in themselves and exceeds any lived. They could be said to exits in the absence of man because man, as he is caught in stone, on the canvas, or by words, is himself a compound of percepts and affects. The work of art is a being of sensation and nothing else: it exists in itself.'

Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guatarri

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Darkness Is That Which Is Waiting For Light To Arrive

Fig. 1. Robert Longo - Untitled (Hot Sun), 2006

'When you possess light within, you see it externally.'

Anaïs Nin

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The Ripples Of Being Have No Alpha And No Omega

Fig. 1. Jasper Johns - Target, 1958

'Nature is an infinite sphere whose centre is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.'

Blaise Pascal

Monday, June 15, 2009

For All Those Hapless Stars Without A Constellation

Fig. 1. Tony Oursler - Star, 2005

'I wish that I was where I am.'

Gertrude Stein

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Where All Our Troubles Melt Like Sucked On Candy*

Fig. 1. Philippe Parreno - Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait (detail), 2009

'A man is crossing the street when out of the clouds a coach with four horses appears, coming towards him. During a walk he hears a voice from the clouds, saying, 'You have left your cigarette case at home.' In our analysis of the two events, if we set aside the possibility of hallucination - that is, the possibility that this semblance has a subjective cause - we find, in the first case, it is conceivable that nothing lied behind the manifestation, but in the second case this is inconceivable.'

Walter Benjamin

* 'Where troubles melt like lemon drops ...' (Over the Rainbow, lyrics by E. Y. Harburg)

Addendum: The Sunday Six

Against Interpretation - Susan Sontag

Content is a glimpse of something, an encounter
like a flash. It’s very tiny - very tiny, content.

Willem De Kooning, in an interview

It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances.
The mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible.

Oscar Wilde, in a letter


The earliest experience of art must have been that it was incantatory, magical; art was an instrument of ritual. (Cf. the paintings in the caves at Lascaux, Altamira, Niaux, La Pasiega, etc.) The earliest theory of art, that of the Greek philosophers, proposed that art was mimesis, imitation of reality.

It is at this point that the peculiar question of the value of art arose. For the mimetic theory, by its very terms, challenges art to justify itself.

Plato, who proposed the theory, seems to have done so in order to rule that the value of art is dubious. Since he considered ordinary material things as themselves mimetic objects, imitations of transcendent forms or structures, even the best painting of a bed would be only an “imitation of an imitation.” For Plato, art is neither particularly useful (the painting of a bed is no good to sleep on), nor, in the strict sense, true. And Aristotle’s arguments in defense of art do not really challenge Plato’s view that all art is an elaborate trompe l’oeil, and therefore a lie. But he does dispute Plato’s idea that art is useless. Lie or no, art has a certain value according to Aristotle because it is a form of therapy. Art is useful, after all, Aristotle counters, medicinally useful in that it arouses and purges dangerous emotions.

In Plato and Aristotle, the mimetic theory of art goes hand in hand with the assumption that art is always figurative. But advocates of the mimetic theory need not close their eyes to decorative and abstract art. The fallacy that art is necessarily a “realism” can be modified or scrapped without ever moving outside the problems delimited by the mimetic theory.

The fact is, all Western consciousness of and reflection upon art have remained within the confines staked out by the Greek theory of art as mimesis or representation. It is through this theory that art as such - above and beyond given works of art - becomes problematic, in need of defense. And it is the defense of art which gives birth to the odd vision by which something we have learned to call “form” is separated off from something we have learned to call “content,” and to the well-intentioned move which makes content essential and form accessory.

Even in modern times, when most artists and critics have discarded the theory of art as representation of an outer reality in favor of the theory of art as subjective expression, the main feature of the mimetic theory persists. Whether we conceive of the work of art on the model of a picture (art as a picture of reality) or on the model of a statement (art as the statement of the artist), content still comes first. The content may have changed. It may now be less figurative, less lucidly realistic. But it is still assumed that a work of art is its content. Or, as it’s usually put today, that a work of art by definition says something. (“What X is saying is . . . ,” “What X is trying to say is . . .,” “What X said is . . .” etc., etc.)


None of us can ever retrieve that innocence before all theory when art knew no need to justify itself, when one did not ask of a work of art what it said because one knew (or thought one knew) what it did. From now to the end of consciousness, we are stuck with the task of defending art. We can only quarrel with one or another means of defense. Indeed, we have an obligation to overthrow any means of defending and justifying art which becomes particularly obtuse or onerous or insensitive to contemporary needs and practice.

This is the case, today, with the very idea of content itself. Whatever it may have been in the past, the idea of content is today mainly a hindrance, a nuisance, a subtle or not so subtle philistinism.

Though the actual developments in many arts may seem to be leading us away from the idea that a work of art is primarily its content, the idea still exerts an extraordinary hegemony. I want to suggest that this is because the idea is now perpetuated in the guise of a certain way of encountering works of art thoroughly ingrained among most people who take any of the arts seriously. What the overemphasis on the idea of content entails is the perennial, never consummated project of interpretation. And, conversely, it is the habit of approaching works of art in order to interpret them that sustains the fancy that there really is such a thing as the content of a work of art.


Of course, I don’t mean interpretation in the broadest sense, the sense in which Nietzsche (rightly) says, “There are no facts, only interpretations.” By interpretation, I mean here a conscious act of the mind which illustrates a certain code, certain “rules” of interpretation.

Directed to art, interpretation means plucking a set of elements (the X, the Y, the Z, and so forth) from the whole work. The task of interpretation is virtually one of translation. The interpreter says, Look, don’t you see that X is really - or, really means - A? That Y is really B? That Z is really C?

What situation could prompt this curious project for transforming a text? History gives us the materials for an answer. Interpretation first appears in the culture of late classical antiquity, when the power and credibility of myth had been broken by the “realistic” view of the world introduced by scientific enlightenment. Once the question that haunts post-mythic consciousness - that of the seemliness of religious symbols - had been asked, the ancient texts were, in their pristine form, no longer acceptable. Then interpretation was summoned, to reconcile the ancient texts to “modern” demands. Thus, the Stoics, to accord with their view that the gods had to be moral, allegorized away the rude features of Zeus and his boisterous clan in Homer’s epics. What Homer really designated by the adultery of Zeus with Leto, they explained, was the union between power and wisdom. In the same vein, Philo of Alexandria interpreted the literal historical narratives of the Hebrew Bible as spiritual paradigms. The story of the exodus from Egypt, the wandering in the desert for forty years, and the entry into the promised land, said Philo, was really an allegory of the individual soul’s emancipation, tribulations, and final deliverance. Interpretation thus presupposes a discrepancy between the clear meaning of the text and the demands of (later) readers. It seeks to resolve that discrepancy. The situation is that for some reason a text has become unacceptable; yet it cannot be discarded. Interpretation is a radical strategy for conserving an old text, which is thought too precious to repudiate, by revamping it. The interpreter, without actually erasing or rewriting the text, is altering it. But he can’t admit to doing this. He claims to be only making it intelligible, by disclosing its true meaning. However far the interpreters alter the text (another notorious example is the Rabbinic and Christian “spiritual” interpretations of the clearly erotic Song of Songs), they must claim to be reading off a sense that is already there.

Interpretation in our own time, however, is even more complex. For the contemporary zeal for the project of interpretation is often prompted not by piety toward the troublesome text (which may conceal an aggression), but by an open aggressiveness, an overt contempt for appearances. The old style of interpretation was insistent, but respectful; it erected another meaning on top of the literal one. The modern style of interpretation excavates, and as it excavates, destroys; it digs “behind” the text, to find a sub-text which is the true one. The most celebrated and influential modern doctrines, those of Marx and Freud, actually amount to elaborate systems of hermeneutics, aggressive and impious theories of interpretation. All observable phenomena are bracketed, in Freud’s phrase, as manifest content. This manifest content must be probed and pushed aside to find the true meaning - the latent content - beneath. For Marx, social events like revolutions and wars; for Freud, the events of individual lives (like neurotic symptoms and slips of the tongue) as well as texts (like a dream or a work of art) - all are treated as occasions for interpretation. According to Marx and Freud, these events only seem to be intelligible. Actually, they have no meaning without interpretation. To understand is to interpret. And to interpret is to restate the phenomenon, in effect to find an equivalent for it.

Thus, interpretation is not (as most people assume) an absolute value, a gesture of mind situated in some timeless realm of capabilities. Interpretation must itself be evaluated, within a historical view of human consciousness. In some cultural contexts, interpretation is a liberating act. It is a means of revising, of transvaluing, of escaping the dead past. In other cultural contexts, it is reactionary, impertinent, cowardly, stifling.


Today is such a time, when the project of interpretation is largely reactionary, stifling. Like the fumes of the automobile and of heavy industry which befoul the urban atmosphere, the effusion of interpretations of art today poisons our sensibilities. In a culture whose already classical dilemma is the hypertrophy of the intellect at the expense of energy and sensual capability, interpretation is the revenge of the intellect upon art.

Even more. It is the revenge of the intellect upon the world. To interpret is to impoverish, to deplete the world - in order to set up a shadow world of “meanings.” It is to turn the world into this world. (“This world”! As if there were any other.)

The world, our world, is depleted, impoverished enough. Away with all duplicates of it, until we again experience more immediately what we have.


In most modern instances, interpretation amounts to the philistine refusal to leave the work of art alone. Real art has the capacity to make us nervous. By reducing the work of art to its content and then interpreting that, one tames the work of art. Interpretation makes art manageable, comformable.

This philistinism of interpretation is more rife in literature than in any other art. For decades now, literary critics have understood it to be their task to translate the elements of the poem or play or novel or story into something else. Sometimes a writer will be so uneasy before the naked power of his art that he will install within the work itself - albeit with a little shyness, a touch of the good taste of irony - the clear and explicit interpretation of it. Thomas Mann is an example of such an overcooperative author. In the case of more stubborn authors, the critic is only too happy to perform the job.

The work of Kafka, for example, has been subjected to a mass ravishment by no less than three armies of interpreters. Those who read Kafka as a social allegory see case studies of the frustrations and insanity of modern bureaucracy and its ultimate issuance in the totalitarian state. Those who read Kafka as a psychoanalytic allegory see desperate revelations of Kafka’s fear of his father, his castration anxieties, his sense of his own impotence, his thralldom to his dreams. Those who read Kafka as a religious allegory explain that K. in The Castle is trying to gain access to heaven, that Joseph K. in The Trial is being judged by the inexorable and mysterious justice of God. . . . Another oeuvre that has attracted interpreters like leeches is that of Samuel Beckett. Beckett’s delicate dramas of the withdrawn consciousness - pared down to essentials, cut off, often represented as physically immobilized - are read as a statement about modern man’s alienation from meaning or from God, or as an allegory of psychopathology.

Proust, Joyce, Faulkner, Rilke, Lawrence, Gide . . . one could go on citing author after author; the list is endless of those around whom thick encrustations of interpretation have taken hold. But it should be noted that interpretation is not simply the compliment that mediocrity pays to genius. It is, indeed, the modern way of understanding something, and is applied to works of every quality. Thus, in the notes that Elia Kazan published on his production of A Streetcar Named Desire, it becomes clear that, in order to direct the play, Kazan had to discover that Stanley Kowalski represented the sensual and vengeful barbarism that was engulfing our culture, while Blanche Du Bois was Western civilization, poetry, delicate apparel, dim lighting, refined feelings and all, though a little the worse for wear to be sure. Tennessee Williams’ forceful psychological melodrama now became intelligible: it was about something, about the decline of Western civilization. Apparently, were it to go on being a play about a handsome brute named Stanley Kowalski and a faded mangy belle named Blanche Du Bois, it would not be manageable.


It doesn’t matter whether artists intend, or don’t intend, for their works to be interpreted. Perhaps Tennessee Williams thinks Streetcar is about what Kazan thinks it to be about. It may be that Cocteau in The Blood of a Poet and in Orpheus wanted the elaborate readings which have been given these films, in terms of Freudian symbolism and social critique. But the merit of these works certainly lies elsewhere than in their “meanings.” Indeed, it is precisely to the extent that Williams’ plays and Cocteau’s films do suggest these portentous meanings that they are defective, false, contrived, lacking in conviction.

From interviews, it appears that Resnais and Robbe-Grillet consciously designed Last Year at Marienbad to accommodate a multiplicity of equally plausible interpretations. But the temptation to interpret Marienbad should be resisted. What matters in Marienbad is the pure, untranslatable, sensuous immediacy of some of its images, and its rigorous if narrow solutions to certain problems of cinematic form.

Again, Ingmar Bergman may have meant the tank rumbling down the empty night street in The Silence as a phallic symbol. But if he did, it was a foolish thought. (“Never trust the teller, trust the tale,” said Lawrence.) Taken as a brute object, as an immediate sensory equivalent for the mysterious abrupt armored happenings going on inside the hotel, that sequence with the tank is the most striking moment in the film. Those who reach for a Freudian interpretation of the tank are only expressing their lack of response to what is there on the screen.

It is always the case that interpretation of this type indicates a dissatisfaction (conscious or unconscious) with the work, a wish to replace it by something else.

Interpretation, based on the highly dubious theory that a work of art is composed of items of content, violates art. It makes art into an article for use, for arrangement into a mental scheme of categories.


Interpretation does not, of course, always prevail. In fact, a great deal of today’s art may be understood as motivated by a flight from interpretation. To avoid interpretation, art may become parody. Or it may become abstract. Or it may become (“merely”) decorative. Or it may become non-art.

The flight from interpretation seems particularly a feature of modern painting. Abstract painting is the attempt to have, in the ordinary sense, no content; since there is no content, there can be no interpretation. Pop Art works by the opposite means to the same result; using a content so blatant, so “what it is,” it, too, ends by being uninterpretable.

A great deal of modern poetry as well, starting from the great experiments of French poetry (including the movement that is misleadingly called Symbolism) to put silence into poems and to reinstate the magic of the word, has escaped from the rough grip of interpretation. The most recent revolution in contemporary taste in poetry - the revolution that has deposed Eliot and elevated Pound - represents a turning away from content in poetry in the old sense, an impatience with what made modern poetry prey to the zeal of interpreters.

I am speaking mainly of the situation in America, of course. Interpretation runs rampant here in those arts with a feeble and negligible avant-garde: fiction and the drama. Most American novelists and playwrights are really either journalists or gentlemen sociologists and psychologists. They are writing the literary equivalent of program music. And so rudimentary, uninspired, and stagnant has been the sense of what might be done with form in fiction and drama that even when the content isn’t simply information, news, it is still peculiarly visible, handier, more exposed. To the extent that novels and plays (in America), unlike poetry and painting and music, don’t reflect any interesting concern with changes in their form, these arts remain prone to assault by interpretation.

But programmatic avant-gardism - which has meant, mostly, experiments with form at the expense of content - is not the only defense against the infestation of art by interpretations. At least, I hope not. For this would be to commit art to being perpetually on the run. (It also perpetuates the very distinction between form and content which is, ultimately, an illusion.) Ideally, it is possible to elude the interpreters in another way, by making works of art whose surface is so unified and clean, whose momentum is so rapid, whose address is so direct that the work can be . . . just what it is. Is this possible now? It does happen in films, I believe. This is why cinema is the most alive, the most exciting, the most important of all art forms right now. Perhaps the way one tells how alive a particular art form is, is by the latitude it gives for making mistakes in it, and still being good. For example, a few of the films of Bergman - though crammed with lame messages about the modern spirit, thereby inviting interpretations - still triumph over the pretentious intentions of their director. In Winter Light and The Silence, the beauty and visual sophistication of the images subvert before our eyes the callow pseudo-intellectuality of the story and some of the dialogue. (The most remarkable instance of this sort of discrepancy is the work of D. W. Griffith.) In good films, there is always a directness that entirely frees us from the itch to interpret. Many old Hollywood films, like those of Cukor, Walsh, Hawks, and countless other directors, have this liberating anti-symbolic quality, no less than the best work of the new European directors, like Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player and Jules and Jim, Godard’s Breathless and Vivre Sa Vie, Antonioni’s L’Avventura, and Olmi’s The Fiancés.

The fact that films have not been overrun by interpreters is in part due simply to the newness of cinema as an art. It also owes to the happy accident that films for such a long time were just movies; in other words, that they were understood to be part of mass, as opposed to high, culture, and were left alone by most people with minds. Then, too, there is always something other than content in the cinema to grab hold of, for those who want to analyze. For the cinema, unlike the novel, possesses a vocabulary of forms - the explicit, complex, and discussable technology of camera movements, cutting, and composition of the frame that goes into the making of a film.


What kind of criticism, of commentary on the arts, is desirable today? For I am not saying that works of art are ineffable, that they cannot be described or paraphrased. They can be. The question is how. What would criticism look like that would serve the work of art, not usurp its place?

What is needed, first, is more attention to form in art. If excessive stress on content provokes the arrogance of interpretation, more extended and more thorough descriptions of form would silence. What is needed is a vocabulary - a descriptive, rather than prescriptive, vocabulary - for forms. The best criticism, and it is uncommon, is of this sort that dissolves considerations of content into those of form. On film, drama, and painting respectively, I can think of Erwin Panofsky’s essay, “Style and Medium in the Motion Pictures,” Northrop Frye’s essay “A Conspectus of Dramatic Genres,” Pierre Francastel’s essay “The Destruction of a Plastic Space.” Roland Barthes’ book On Racine and his two essays on Robbe-Grillet are examples of formal analysis applied to the work of a single author. (The best essays in Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis, like “The Scar of Odysseus,” are also of this type.) An example of formal analysis applied simultaneously to genre and author is Walter Benjamin’s essay, “The Story Teller: Reflections on the Works of Nicolai Leskov.”

Equally valuable would be acts of criticism which would supply a really accurate, sharp, loving description of the appearance of a work of art. This seems even harder to do than formal analysis. Some of Manny Farber’s film criticism, Dorothy Van Ghent’s essay “The Dickens World: A View from Todgers’,” Randall Jarrell’s essay on Walt Whitman are among the rare examples of what I mean. These are essays which reveal the sensuous surface of art without mucking about in it.


Transparence is the highest, most liberating value in art - and in criticism - today. Transparence means experiencing the luminousness of the thing in itself, of things being what they are. This is the greatness of, for example, the films of Bresson and Ozu and Renoir’s The Rules of the Game.

Once upon a time (say, for Dante), it must have been a revolutionary and creative move to design works of art so that they might be experienced on several levels. Now it is not. It reinforces the principle of redundancy that is the principal affliction of modern life.

Once upon a time (a time when high art was scarce), it must have been a revolutionary and creative move to interpret works of art. Now it is not. What we decidedly do not need now is further to assimilate Art into Thought, or (worse yet) Art into Culture.

Interpretation takes the sensory experience of the work of art for granted, and proceeds from there. This cannot be taken for granted, now. Think of the sheer multiplication of works of art available to every one of us, superadded to the conflicting tastes and odors and sights of the urban environment that bombard our senses. Ours is a culture based on excess, on overproduction; the result is a steady loss of sharpness in our sensory experience. All the conditions of modern life - its material plenitude, its sheer crowdedness - conjoin to dull our sensory faculties. And it is in the light of the condition of our senses, our capacities (rather than those of another age), that the task of the critic must be assessed.

What is important now is to recover our senses. We must learn to see more, to hear more, to feel more.

Our task is not to find the maximum amount of content in a work of art, much less to squeeze more content out of the work than is already there. Our task is to cut back content so that we can see the thing at all.

The aim of all commentary on art now should be to make works of art - and, by analogy, our own experience - more, rather than less, real to us. The function of criticism should be to show how it is what it is, even that it is what it is, rather than to show what it means.


In place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art.


Saturday, June 13, 2009

Reasons Why The World Is Always Better In Colour

Fig. 1. David Park - The Jazz Musicians, 1954

'A goal is a dream with a finish line.'

Duke Ellington

Friday, June 12, 2009

Endless Begettings Of Mythologies And Apocalypses

Fig. 1. Nalini Malani - Listening to the Shades no. 7, 2008

Visions at Nightfall

How will we be told the worst? Who will tell us? Who will pay heed?

These questions are not being asked for the first time. They are being asked for our time - urgently. It is one in which there is every sign that they may be being asked for the last time, or, at best, the next to last time. If so we are at the tipping point when the worst still hangs in the balance, but after which we will be fully in its grip. From then on we will be left to watch the inevitable process unfold with only the suspense and mystery of irreversible devolution and the intimations of its final marvellous completeness to take our minds off the approaching conclusion of all that life depends on. And, in the unravelling, cutting and breaking off the bundled strands of cultures, communities and individual lives, the conclusion of all narratives.

Being the end of stories the Apocalypse has also been among the first of stories. From the start civilisation has been mesmerised by its own demise - has imagined it, contemplated it, waited for it, dreaded it, longed for it. In some cases the suspense has actually killed societies, or drove them to spiritual if not physical suicide with conquests destroying mighty empires that had launched them, or, conversely, withdrawal from the wider world crippling their means of survival.

But our epoch is from previous ones because annihilation will not be a whim of the Gods, or a punishment meted out by any avenging power on high, but instead the consequence of our own actions and inaction. We will drop the bombs - we are dropping them now. We will pollute the waters - with every toxin available we poison them now. Negligently or intentionally we will let masses of people starve - out of sight or in the open, they are starving now. Possessed of treatments we do not use, means of prevention we do not put into effect, scientific insights we choose not to pursue because money is spent on other things, we will let disease run rampant - crossing continents, going to ground in villages and cities, and leapfrogging oceans in first, business and economy class, it is doing so right now. To the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse we have added outriders capable of heretofore unimagined destruction. They are our creatures and they wield our inventions. In due course, they will prevail, leaving the world a tabula rasa with no one to tell the tale of last days, and no one to read it.

For the present there are several ways of describing the cataclysm that appears to be in progress - since the modern concept of 'progress' is so deeply embedded in the fate about to befall us, we might as well retain the term with all its compound ironies - and several modes of posting a warning. The most common, and, arguably, the most direct and reasonable one, if, by appealing to reason one hopes to halt and even reverse our dire trajectory, is documentation. It is the format of the news media and of agit-prop art, which, in our era, has merged in the grain of printed texts and photographs as well as in the haze of pixels. This poses problems not just because editors editorialise and propagandists doctor facts, but because the 'look' of reportage has so permeated visual culture that it almost seems as if there is nothing to contrast it to, no aesthetic foil except another as yet unfamiliar deployment of mechanically recorded and reproduced imagery.

The further difficulty is that like everything that becomes familiar, images meant to shock the viewer into a new understanding sooner or later lose their immediacy and so declare the opposite. For in line with Roland Barthes' dictum that 'Death is the eidos of [the] Photograph,' in that what happens in it has happened only once and can never happen again, a photograph is intrinsically about a closed chapter rather than an impending event. Indeed, the harsh realities or quasi-realities portrayed in the news or in agit-prop exist at a doubled remove from viewers, the first is spatial and the second, more crucial to representations of the Apocalypse, is temporal. For not only are viewers spared having to witness the actual ruination or extinction of something or someone - it is not here but there - they can take comfort in the awareness that they are survivors of the precise pictorial moment that was the subject's last.

The Apocalypse leaves no survivors, no witnesses. It is a perfect crime committed against being. Unlike the death and destruction which precede it, but only once for each victim and, in their appalling aggregate, nevertheless occur seem puny by comparison, 'the End' is that which has never happened. Seeing it arrive, feeling its immensity, and conceiving of the vastness and variousness of everyone and everything it nullifies, cannot be documented. Moreover, documentary style fundamentally betrays 'the End' as a subject inasmuch as any given piece of information that might be thought to presage it simultaneously recalls - but with ever-growing vagueness - disasters past, 'the worst' we have transcended or simply forgotten. And what is 'the End'? Whimper or bang, it is a coming undone, a coming apart. Whether that disintegration occurs gradually or instantaneously, there is an interval in which the myriad fragments of formerly realities can be seen, as never before and after, in uncanny states of flux. It is an interval when ostensibly contradictory and incommensurable things miraculously coexist. The prophet is she or he who sees their intermingling and suspension first, and, recognising this weird syncretism for what it is, already cohesive never best measures their gathering (combustible) or dispersing (spent) energies.

As we know, prophets are without honour in their own land because their words and their images spell out what is unthinkable to all around them. Inasmuch as a vision is not a fact - though facts may enter into them and assume their true significance - dismissing in the name of common sense is the path of least resistance for those unable to assimilate the future foretold. Dismissing prophets as mad is easier still, and more categorical. Madness is an offense against rationality; it is Reason's untouchable 'Other'. That women are 'Other' to men in societies where men have traditionally ruled - and it is hard to name an example where that, in the long run, has not been the case - then female prophets are the definitive 'Other', madness itself in the gendered body of those already suspected of being deficient in higher orders of thought.

Cassandra is the archetype of such seers, and in Nalini Malani's eponymous series prophets of paintings she is the woman of the hour. Which, if reckoned on the Doomsday Clock created in 1947 by the Directors of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, currently stands at five minutes to midnight. In the fraction of that hour remaining to us, Malani has had a vision of her own. The form it takes is paintings of the utmost fluidity, befitting the vertiginous contingency of the world around her - and around us. Thus figures from different times and different cultures, figures giving substance to the principle of difference in its essential polymorphousness are awash in tides and currents of evanescent colour. Some we will recognise without difficulty, reminiscent as they are of ancient deities and monsters. Others will be familiar from their dress or gestures as belonging to our own era. All the while that the clock ticks with agonising slowness toward a more agonising future without aftermath, the compass spins; East West, North meets South, but also East meets the other East - has Malani not spoken of 'Splitting the Other' - and West meets woman distinctly times meets the other West and so on North and South.

No wonder the Apocalypse is wonderment pure, the climactic paradox of issuing from deformation and disembodiment, from an irrevocable denaturing of the natural in which humanity's power is consummated and then consumed leaving only a Confronted by this prospect the artist's license is correspondingly unlimited, but, as history shows, virtually inexhaustible as well. at any rate, Malani's work indicates that she has tapped into fathomless reserves of imagery, reference and metaphor. And from those depths arise painterly effects that invite us to luxuriate in colours, strokes and textures of disorienting but arresting strangeness. Her iconography is equally captivating. Not only does she conjure with as we experience it daily - though less so than in previous work - in a disenchanted period she reaches back to myth, but not in order to re-enchant the world - we are well past the point where anachronistic symbolism will heal the wounds of modernity - but in order to draw attention to the fact that in the war between Eros and Thanatos, the antagonists have not changed their essential characters but only their aspects. And only to the extent that we can no longer escape a collective awareness that the seeds of our own destruction were not divinely but sown by ourselves.

That Malani is not alone among wakeful soothsayers and tough-minded doomsayers in taking recourse to myth to articulate the full magnitude of their vision, nor alone in crossing cultural divides in choosing a particular myth for that purpose, is demonstrated by the fascination that J. Robert Oppenheimer had with the Bhagavad Gita. Observing the detonation of the first atom bomb, Oppenheimer reportedly paraphrased lines from that sacred text saying: 'Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.' Later, in an attempt to describe the experience, he again resorted to scripture saying: 'If the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst at once into the sky, that would be like the splendour of the mighty one.'

However, for all that he could logically predict its terminal phase, Oppenheimer could not stop the advent of the Nuclear Age his genius ushered in, any more than Cassandra could prevent the levelling of Troy by foreseeing it.

Still, before the radiance of a thousand suns and the absolute darkness that follows, it seems that there is a kind of brilliant dusk in which spectres of human consciousness and traces of human history coalesce with inexplicable vividness. That transitional space and time are Malani's element.

We would do well to pay heed to the luminous figments she has brought back from that twilight zone.'

Robert Storr (from Nalini Malani: Listening to the Shades, 2008)

Thursday, June 11, 2009

There, Where Art Is No Longer A Consumer Product*

Fig. 1. Tadeusz Kantor - The Dead Class, 1975

The Echoing Green

The sun does arise
And make happy the skies;
The merry bells ring
And welcome the spring;
The skylark and thrush
The birds of the bush,
Sing louder around
To the bell's cheerful sound,
While our sports shall be seen
On the Echoing Green.

Old John with white hair,
Does laugh away care,
Sitting under the oak,
Among the old folk.
And soon they all say:
"Such, such were the joys
When we all, girls and boys,
In our youth time were seen
On the Echoing Green."

Till the little ones, weary,
No more can be merry;
The sun does descend,
And our sports have an end.
Round the laps of their mothers,
Many sisters and brother,
Like birds in their nest,
Are ready for rest,
And sport no more seen,
On the darkening green.

William Blake

* '[Theatre] searches for an ancestry deeply rooted in the past that emerges from ancient customs, ur-rituals, the practice of magic, festivities, ceremonial celebration, games, pageantry and processions, popular and street theatre, political and agit-prop theatre - it searches wherever art is no longer a consumer product but an integral component of life.'

Tadeusz Kantor

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

It's A Wednesday Thing: The Antidote To Love Is You

"Brothel Customer" (Iska Kahn) and "Belle de Jour" (Catherine Deneuve) - Belle de jour, d. Luis Buñuel, 1967

'[Extreme] seductiveness is probably at the boundary of horror.'

Georges Bataille

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

It's A Tuesday Thing: Add The Square Root Of Zero

Fig. 1. Jenny Holzer - The Survival Series: The Conversation Always Turns To Living Long Enough To Have Fun, 1983-85

'I am a Bear of Very Little Brain, and long words bother me.'

Winnie the Pooh

Monday, June 8, 2009

It's A Monday Thing: The Fiery Poetics Of Sensation

Fig. 1. J. M. W. Turner - The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons, 1835

'Art bids us touch and taste and hear and see the world, and shrinks from what Blake calls mathematical form, from every abstract thing, from all that is of the brain only, from all that is not a fountain jetting from the entire hopes, memories, and sensations of the body.'

William Butler Yeats

Sunday, June 7, 2009

It's A Sunday Thing: Juan Gris (Anything But Grey)

Fig. 1. Pears and Grapes on a Table, 1913

Fig. 2. Teacups, 1914

Fig. 3. Fantomas (Pipe and Newspaper), 1915

Fig. 4. Guitar and Score, 1915

Fig. 5. Still Life, 1915-16

Fig. 6. Still Life with Flask of Bordeaux, 1919

Fig. 7. Guitar and Clarinet, 1920

Fig. 8. The Mountain (Le Canigou), 1921

Fig. 9. The Open Window, 1921

Fig. 10. Guitar and Music Paper, 1926

'In aesthetics, as in all areas of philosophy, one can begin almost anywhere - with the objects of nature or the objects of art; with aesthetic production or reception; with aesthetic judgement or artistic imagination; with concepts of things or concepts of signs; with the existential, cognitive, or ethical meaning of aesthetic states. However one begins aesthetics, the important thing is to consider the interrelatedness of these and other phenomena. This also applies when when we are concerned predominantly with special phenomena - that is, in aesthetics, with literature or film, ornament or design, monochrome painting or minimal music. One type of aesthetic object enjoys its distinctiveness only in relation to other types, against which it stands out, to which it is related, with which it is in a process of exchange. Ultimately, this holds even for every individual aesthetic object - for this landscape, this building, this installation. Each enjoys its particularity in contrast to other (types of) objects. Theory can support this particularity (and thereby fulfil its most important task) only if it shows in what more general relations this particularity is located. It is only together with a sense of the general that the sense of the particular is there; only together with a concept of this general that it is possible to have an understanding of the multiplicity of aesthetic objects and opportunities. No matter how one begins aesthetics, what always matters in the end is to have a sense of the richness of aesthetic states.'

Martin Seel

Saturday, June 6, 2009

It's A Saturday Thing: The (Dis)enchantments of Love

Fig. 1. Barbara Kruger (b. 1945) - Untitled (under the skin, thin skin, skin deep, thick skin, skin tight, skinned alive), 2003

'Language is a skin: I rub my language against the other. It is as if I had words instead of fingers, or fingers at the tip of my words. My language trembles with desire.'

Roland Barthes

Friday, June 5, 2009

It's A Friday Thing: This Is Not A Pain(t)hing - Oh, No!

Fig. 1. Hiraki Sawa - Going Places Sitting Down (video still), 2004

'Psychologists - and more especially philosophers - pay little attention to the play of miniature frequently introduced into fairytales. In the eyes of the psychologist, the writer is merely amusing himself when he creates houses that can be set on a pea. But this is a basic absurdity that places the tale on a level with the merest fantasy. And fantasy precludes the writer from entering, really, into the domain of the fantastic. Indeed he himself, when he develops his facile inventions, often quite ponderously, would appear not to believe in a psychological reality that corresponds to these miniature features. He lacks that little particle of dream which could be handed on from writer to reader. To make others believe, we must believe ourselves. Is it worthwhile, then, for a philosopher to raise a phenomenological problem with regard to these literary "miniatures", these objects that are so easily made smaller through literary means? Is it possible for the conscious - of both writer and reader - to play a sincere role in the very origin of images of this kind?

Yet we are obliged to grant these images a certain objectivity, from the mere fact that they both attract and interest many dreamers. One might say that these houses in miniature are false objects that possess a true psychological objectivity. Here the process of imagination is typical, and poses a problem that must be distinguished from the general problem of geometrical similarities. The geometrician sees exactly the same thing in two similar figures, drawn to different scales. The plan of a house drawn on a reduced scale implies none of the problems that are inherent to a philosophy of the imagination. There is even no need to consider it from the general standpoint of representation, although it would be important, from this standpoint, to study the phenomenology of similarity. Our study should be specified as belonging definitely under the imagination.

Everything will be clear, for instance, if, in order to enter into the domain where we imagine, we are forced to cross the threshold of absurdity, as in the case of [Bean Treasure] , Charles Nodier's hero, who gets into a fairy's coach the size of a bean. In fact, he gets into it with six "litrons" of beans on his shoulder. There is thus a contradiction in numbers as well as in the size of the space involved. Six thousand beans fit into one. And the same thing is true when Michael - who is oversize - finds himself, to his great surprise, in the house of the [Beggar Fairy], which is hidden under a tuft of grass. But he feels at home there, and settles down. Happy at being in a small place, he realises an experience of topohilia; that is, once inside the miniature house, he sees its vast number of rooms; from the interior he discovers interior beauty. Here we have an inversion of perspective, which is either fleeting or captivating, according to the talent of the narrator, or the reader's capacity for dream. Nodier, who was often too eager to be "agreeable", and too much amused to give full reign to his imagination, allows certain badly camouflaged rationalisations to subsist. In order to explain psychologically this entry into the tiny house, he recalls the little cardboard houses that children play with. In other words, the tiny things we imagine simply take us back to childhood, to familiarity with toys and the reality of toys.

But the imagination deserves better than that. In point of fact, imagination in miniature is natural imagination which appears at all ages in the daydreams of born dreamers. Indeed, the element of amusement must be removed, if we are to find its true psychological roots.

. . .

Representation becomes nothing but a body of expressions with which to communicate our own images to others. In line with a philosophy that accepts the imagination as a basic faculty, one could say, in the manner of Schopenhauer: "The world is my imagination." The cleverer I am at miniaturising the world, the better I possess it. But in doing this, it must be understood that values become condensed and enriched in miniature. Platonic dialectics of large and small do not suffice for us to become cognizant of the dynamic virtues of miniature thinking. One must go beyond logic in order to experience what is large in what is small.'

Gaston Bachelard