Media, culture, and politics from an aesthetic-materialist's perspective.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

The Superficiality of Art


An academic fashion of recent years has been to understand and theorize what might be called a de-substantialized aesthetics: art that isn't about something but reflects (on) its own form of contentless expression. Alain Badiou's Handbook of Inaesthetics has made the rounds among grad students trying to wrap their heads around this project. More generally, the "return to form," or the New Formalism, in literary and visual studies has inspired many a dissertation on late modernism, abstract art, the cinema of Antonioni, and the work of Beckett, among other topics. It may or may not be a coincidence that grad students who revel in the New Formalism also tend to be the same hipsters who listen to the notable musical expression of a contentless art, post-rock.

For all of the New Formalism's intellectual cachet, it was difficult for me to find a single source that 1) advanced a coherent point about de-substantialized aesthetics, and 2) actually used the theory to interpret literary and visual texts in a way that was persuasive in its own right. Fortunately, it took just one well-crafted passage from Leo Bersani and Adam Phillips's Intimacies to change all that. The book presents itself as a dialogue between the authors on their respective theoretical engagements with psychoanalysis. Really, though, Intimacies is three parts (i.e., chapters) Bersani and one part Phillips, and it is in Bersani's first chapter that this insightful observation appears:
We might take [Henry James's character John Marcher, from The Beast in the Jungle] to be an emblem of art. Writers, painters, filmmakers frequently move in their late work not toward a greater density of meaning and texture, but rather toward a kind of concentrated monotony that designates a certain negativizing effect inherent in the aesthetic. I'm thinking -- to mention just a few examples at random -- of Turner's nearly monochromatic late seascapes, the almost imperceptible variations within the dark coloring of the walls in the Rothko Chapel, the willed thinness of Beckett's last fictions (especially Westward Ho), the nearly subjectless banality of Flaubert's Bouvard and Pécuchet, the relentless reduction of variegated actual behavior to abstract laws of behavior in Proust's La Fugitive, the erasure of abstraction itself in Mallarmé's obsessively present page blanche, and of course the at times staggering thinness of meaning in James's late novels. (25)
Bersani's examples are illustrative, even if you've never seen or read them yourself. Using descriptors like "thin," "nearly monochromatic," and "banal," Bersani gives us an idea of how "concentrated monotony" (and note the multi-sensory meanings of "monotone") advances a de-substantialized aesthetics. In a word, the depthlessness of these works invites the reader or spectator to dwell in the realm of the aesthetic as such.

Consonant with Bersani's exploration of the "shattering" of the ego in gay sex, his proposal in Intimacies is that the superficiality of art negates humans' need to find (deep) meaning in texts. Focusing only on the superficial -- that which is apparent, rather than what we assume to be "actual" or "substantial" -- brackets the ego's desire to appropriate meaning for (self-)understanding. Instead, the superficiality of art says, "Forget the referent (there is no referent) and give yourself over to the object of art itself."

Bersani's thesis compels one to explore the individual artists he names in the passage. Of these, I found the work of English artist Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851) to be the most surprising, not least because he's the earliest figure cited in the passage. Conventionally thought of as a Romantic landscapist, Turner's "late seascapes" are wondrously abstract. Turner's colors assume what I can only describe, synaesthesially, as their own kind of texture.

Landscape with Water
Landscape with Water (c. 1840-5) concentrates color on one side of the canvas to create the effect of density. Nonetheless, the figure on the left remains obscure, and the haze of colors makes it difficult to discern where water, land, and air begin or end.

Seascape with Storm Coming On
Seascape with Storm Coming On (c 1840) is even more abstract, but we can still see Turner concentrating color on part of the canvas to give weight to his vision. Notably, the darkness which lies at the center of the painting doesn't represent something "real"; on the contrary, it acts as a kind of blank focus around which the lighter hues swirl and revolve.

Sunrise, with a Boat between Headlands
Sunrise, with a Boat between Headlands (c. 1840-5) operates in a similar way to Seascape with Storm. The difference is that its blank focal point is the beaming whiteness in the center of the canvas. That whiteness conceals the "actual" sunrise the painting purports to represent, but the effect of its luminosity is to warm the canvas's other colors, softening the browns and blues in a shower of light.

If Turner's late seascapes are emblems of a de-substantialized aesthetics, then Bersani's genealogy can serve as a productive starting point for scholars who wish to work on this topic in a serious and meaningful way. With Bersani, one gets the impression that art is something more than just an academic "object of study" -- it's a wholly engrossing, all-consuming experience of being (or non-being). Badiou and the majority of New Formalists in the academy strike me in the opposite way: they wish to talk theoretically about art, but they evince very little taste for it. "Taste" not in the sense of highbrow vs. lowbrow but in the sense of not seeming to like art, or the experience of art, all that much. Badiou and the New Formalists remain wholly cerebral consumers of art, and in that regard they can never fully give themselves over to its ego-shattering superficiality.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Petey Greene: Radicalizing Racial Discourse

I just finished watching the PBS documentary Adjust Your Color, on the life and times of Washington, D.C., radio and TV talk show host Petey Greene (RIP). Greene's story is remarkable: an ex-con and hustler turned community activist and self-proclaimed voice for the black community. Especially notable for me was the overlap between Greene's life story and that of the black pulp fiction icon Donald Goines, whom I wrote about last year. Both men emerged out of prison to take advantage of media opportunities that allowed them to address the ghettos out of which they had emerged. (Tragically, both men died young too.)

Here's a clip of Greene's most famous televised broadcast, in which he talks about the politics of black people eating watermelon. It's at once side-splittingly hilarious and dead-on serious. Above all, Petey Greene didn't like anyone -- black or white -- to "front," and pussyfooting around the issue of eating watermelon only distracted folks from consuming a fine piece of fruit meat.

Petey Greene (1931-1984)
From Petey Greene's Washington, D.C.
"Be Yourself" (1982)