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.


traxus4420 said...

hey, great post -- i don't think i've hear turner described in that way before -- on your last paragraph, badiou's 15 theses on art (haven't read the handbook) suggest he would think 'liking' art (relying on one's pleasure or preference to confirm the quality of a piece of art) and cultivating taste are inherently romantic procedures. at the very least badiou wants to avoid phenomenology, which would seem to preclude most existing forms of writing on the aesthetic, to the point of being a contradiction in terms. bersani's and your descriptions of affect sound 'postromantic' next to your take on the neo-modernism of the 'new formalists,' if that makes any sense -- 'ego-shattering superficiality' is the perfect phrase to describe romantic affect applied to abstract or anonymous materials. while i would separate out antonioni from this group, beckett and badiou definitely seem invested in the kind of modernism whose militancy risks (really invites) criticism for 'sterility.'

certainly now though there's no shortage of efforts by art critics and museum curators to cultivate a taste even for duchamp's ready mades.

most contemporary pop music seems postromantic to me, or ego-shatteringly about its own contentless, de-substantialized surface (see Rihanna).

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