Readings & Reviews
Postmodernism is not the name of a period, such as neoclassicism or postimpressionism; it is a condition of resistance that can arise wherever modernist ideas are in place. Postmodernism works like a dormant illness in the body of modernism: when modernism falters and fails, postmodernism flourishes.
Master Narratives and their Discontents 2005, James Elkins
Review: Edouard Vuillard at the Jewish Museum
Interieur Edouard Vuillard, 1902
Saturday I went to the Jewish Museum at 5th Ave. & 92nd St. to see an exhibition of paintings: Edouard Vuillard: A Painter and His Muses, 1890-1940 through September 23, 2012. Vuillard is noted for his interiors. I've always liked his work because it gives me a sense of the time it was painted.
As a maker of pictures I concern myself with form; not only do I consider the form of the sheep I photograph, I consider forms of their setting: the shape of the flock, the clouds, the balance of colors, the umber earth, the blues of the skies overhead the greenish grasses; and the lines of the composition (and the sight lines of the sheep: where they look), their direction. How the setting feels, its odd geometry and how that feels, where the sheep are, how they're grouped. How the intuitive disegno works and how these decisions of composition are instantaneous and inexplicable.
The picture above is not about the figures—they are part of it—it is about the room in which they sit; it is why the painting interests.
In keeping with my resolution that when in I'm in New York, I'll do what a New Yorker could do, I went to the Museum of Modern Art to see an exhibition.
I was expecting photography that stood on its own, that required no explanatory text to tell me what I was seeing. I was disappointed. The images needed the text they appeared with or something to help them. I took inspiration, or it might be better to say, I was helped by a French philosopher, considered by many to be the father of art criticism, Denis Diderot:
...in the Salon de 1765 Diderot describes...a picture (Pastorale Russe) by a young artist recently returned from a stay of several years in Russia, Jean-Baptiste Le Prince
...Diderot discovers that he has entered the painting
"I actually find myself there. I shall remain leaning against this tree, between this old man and his young girl, as long as the boy plays. When he will have stopped playing and when the old man places his fingers on his balalaika once again, I shall go and sit next to the boy; and when the night draws near, all three of us will accompany the good old man to his hut..."
From Absorption and Theatricality, Michael Fried 1980 p.121, translation by Martine and David Bell
I read Simon's text that was specific to a set of photographs beside it, then I viewed a different set of photographs on the opposite wall specific to a text next to them that I had not read. I then read the text and saw the images the way Simon wanted them to be associated. But my reading (and viewing) interested me at least as well and in some cases more, but for different reasons, than hers did; if the text was not more poetic, then it was certainly more mysterious in relation to the images I chose to associate it with. The exercise handled the content of the work as if it were a formal component. In many cases the texts and images approached the interchangeable which made me question why I was there and not on my way to the good old man's hut.
But, I like what Rosalind Krause writes:
A critic constantly revises not only her conception of the direction and most important currents of contemporary art, but also her convictions about the most significant work within them. This entails a perpetual reassessment of the field she surveys and the demand that it be articulated in her writing.
Perceptual Inventory 2010 Rosalind Krause p. xi
She wrote this after three decades of practicing art criticism. We learn, we change.
Taryn Simon A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters I–XVIII through September 3, 2012
Denis Donoghue on Walter Pater
These techniques of delay in Pater's sentences mark his quiet refusal to live by the rhythms of public life, commerce, and technology. Just as clearly as his indifference to the realistic novel, they express his distaste for bourgeois values...To the extent that public life in Victorian England was directed toward the rapid production of goods and services, Pater's style was antithetical to those purposes. Instead of moving swiftly from point to point, as in a newspaper or a guidebook, his sentences turn aside, replacing the repetitions of technology with activity entirely internal. They are busy with themselves, but not otherwise with the world. So their relation to the apparent theme is indirect...(His sentences,) their first loyalty is to the act of the mind in the process of negotiating the issue: they are responsive to a mind thinking rather than to the things being said.
Walter Pater, Lover of Strange Souls, Denis Donoghue 1995
To give you an idea of Pater's sentences and the style that Donoghue speaks about:
Quite different from them in origin and intent, but confused with them in form, are those other companions of Dionysus, Pan and his children. Home-spun dream of simple people, and like them in the uneventful tenour of his existence, he has almost no story; he is but a presence; the spiritual form of Arcadia, and the ways of human life there; the reflexion, in sacred image or ideal, of its flocks, and orchards, and wild honey; the dangers of its hunters; its weariness in noonday heat; its children, agile as the goats they tend, who run, in their picturesque rags, across the solitary wanderer's path, to startle him, in the unfamiliar upper places; its one adornment and solace being the dance to the homely shepherd's pipe, cut by Pan first from the sedges of the brook Molpeia.
Greek Studies, Walter Pater 1895
Angela Leighton: Walter Pater's Style
To write about Pater's aesthetics, then, is in some ways to have a problem of subject matter. He is not a theorist with a subject to be honed and defined. Moreover, since he does not deal in the nominal form of 'the aesthetic', it is sometimes not clear what he is writing about, though his style goes round about enough. This absence of definable matter may be the very reason why he is so influential a literary voice. The aesthetic, for him, is not a subject on which to discourse; it is of the nature of literary discourse itself. It is something that remains at work, and at play, in his style. It is an effect of writing, an elusive, ghostly effect perhaps, rather than an object of contention. ... Form, a word Pater loves, helps shift 'content' to 'narratives'. It distracts from the search for a subject and emphasizes, instead, the passage of meaning, the sense of a style. ... The very fluidity of Pater's prose, its wandering openness to suggestion and affect, its provisional extendedness, ensure that ideas and concepts rarely harden against the flow. Instead, it is the flow itself which defines, for him, the nature of 'the aesthetic'.
On Form—Poetry, Aestheticism, and the Legacy of a Word Angela Leighton, 2007 p. 7
Angela Leighton on Virginia Woolf
Of all the modernists, the one who is perhaps the most indebted to, and exercised by, Victorian aestheticism is Virginia Woolf. This feminist modernist, who read Pater in defiance of her father, who acknowledges his influence at the beginning of Orlando and who, in Three Guineas, recalls the artist's duty to work 'only for the sake of the art', in fact inherits and constantly reworks the aestheticist notion of formal beauty. A curious passage from Jacob's Room (1922), for instance, is typical in the way it uses the word 'beauty' to invite and repel physical objectification:
As for the beauty of women, it is like the light on the sea, never constant to a single wave. ... Then, at a top-floor window, leaning out, looking down, you see beauty itself... beauty glowing, suddenly expressive, withdrawn the moment after. No one can count on it or seize it or have it wrapped in paper. Nothing is to be won from the shops, and Heaven knows it would be better to sit at home than haunt the plate-glass windows in the hope of lifting the shining green, the glowing ruby, out of them alive.
As the passage goes hunting for 'beauty itself' it runs into a tangle of contradiction. Beauty is something and nothing, there and not there, dead and alive. 'Nothing', Woolf declares, 'is to be won from the shops.' Yet the sentence ends up in the very place she rejects, imagining 'the shining green, the glowing ruby' behind 'plate-glass windows'. 'Nothing' turns out to be something after all, quite solid and buyable, as beauty, from being embodied in 'women', embodies itself in the emeralds and rubies of a long tradition.
On Form-Poetry, Aestheticism, and the Legacy of a Word Angela Leighton, 2007
Walter Pater quotes Michael de Montaigne, an acknowledged master of the essay.
(A) literary form necessary to a mind for which truth itself is but a possibility, realizable not as general conclusion, but rather as the elusive effect of a particular personal experience; to a mind which, noting faithfully those random lights that meet it by the way, must needs content itself with suspension of judgment, at the end of the intellectual journey, to the very last asking: Que sais-je?
Plato and Platonism Walter Pater 1892
In "The Convalescent," a chapter of the third book of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Zarathustra remains in his cave for seven days till he recovers from his collapse. Then he raises himself, takes up an apple, smells it, and finds it delightful. At this point the animals urge him to come into the world and speak. When he does, he speaks about language:
How lovely it is that there are words and sounds. Are not words and sounds rainbows and illusive bridges between things which are eternally apart? But all sounds make us forget this; how lovely it is that we forget. . .. Are not words and sounds given to things so that man can renew himself through things? Speech is a beautiful folly: by means of it, man dances over all things. How sweet is all speech; [how sweet] all the illusion of sounds! With sounds our love dances on many-coloured rainbows.
The dancing of speech is eloquence: the aim of a dance is not to get from one part of the village green or the stage to another, it is to create and embody yet another form of life beyond the already known forms of it.
On Eloquence by Denis Donoghue, 2008
Formalism & Not
"Formalism permitted me," one of our rightly most celebrated critics and scholars of modern art once declared, "to separate myself from the type of subjective, romantic and poetic criticism practiced, among others, by Harold Rosenberg." That means, it seems to me, that the focus of her interest was on a kind of syntactic inquiry into works of art considered objectively—that is, as objects with certain resident structures it was the task of the critic to identify and clarify, independent of any external reference—of semantics, so to speak—and in particular of any pragmatic reference to those who experience them. She was speaking of criticism as a kind of autonomous Kunstswissenschafft…
I think it is very valuable for students to learn how to look at works of art as formal exercises, to "look under the hood" as the scholar I have just quoted—it is of course Rosalind Krauss—puts it in a study of the work of Cindy Sherman. That was not my way of thinking of Sherman's work—I happen to have a taste for "subjective, romantic, and poetic" responses—and feel I learn a lot about art from reading that kind of criticism, as well, of course, as the writings of Krauss herself, or her disavowed mentor, Clement Greenberg, on individual works of art.
The Abuse Of Beauty, Arthur C. Danto, 2003
"...More Arresting Than Its Contents..."
On Walter Pater's The Renaissance, Studies in Art And Poetry 1893
But when the essays were collected and read together, there rose from them such urgent and sensuous music of a new kind, celebrating too a view of life equally sensuous and novel, that the tone of the book became more arresting than its contents...
What had promised to be at worst a harmless browse among byways of the Florentine Renaissance suddenly took on the insidious appeal of some prose Fleurs du Mal. Even a visit to Milan might no longer be supposed safe, if the city was still a home of 'brilliant sins'.
The Case of Walter Pater Michael Levey 1978