Thursday, June 4, 2009

"Entirely impersonal, lacking in any human interest"

In Mexico City on November 12, 1925, Edward Weston recorded one of the ever-recurring moments when he saw the shape of a body as if for the first time. "I was shaving when A. came," he wrote in his Daybook,
hardly expecting her on such a gloomy, drizzling day. I made excuses, having no desire, no 'inspiration' to work. I dragged out my shaving, hinting that the light was poor, that she would shiver in the unheated room: but she took no hints, undressing while I reluctantly prepared my camera. And then appeared to me the most exquisite lines, forms, volumes--and I accepted,--working easily, rapidly, surely. (The Daybooks of Edward Weston. Volume I, Mexico. Ed. Nancy Newhall. Millerton, NY: Aperture, 1973. 136)
 The next day, Weston looked over his November 12 work and compared it with another series of nudes: the passionately intimate ones he had created from and for the body of his mistress and fellow photographer, Tina Modotti. Thinking of the difference, he wrote:
I made fifteen negatives of A. Eight I may finish, six most surely. My first enthusiasm has not abated, I was not unduly excited. Under cool reconsideration, they retain their importance as my finest set of nudes,--that is, in their approach to aesthetically stimulating form. Most of the series are entirely impersonal, lacking in any human interest which might call attention to a living, palpitating body. Not that I am prepared to say this is a finer use of photography than the rendering of realism, the frank statement of fact, the capturing of fleeting moments from life, as I have done, and never better than with Tina,--in fact I have always held the latter approach more important, since no other medium can possibly picture life so well: but one must satisfy all desires and at present my tendency seems entirely toward the abstract.
This nude from 1925 (not of "A.," I believe) will show us what Weston meant by "tendency toward the abstract." As he says elsewhere, he had been learning cubist form from Brancusi.

But Weston was uneasy with abstraction. He craved his "fleeting moments from life." After he had photographed the pure shape of one of his peppers, he ate it. In the aftermath of art, too, art's consumers use it to experience their own fleeting moments from life in the only way they can: with money. In the upper part of this image, for example, we can see the shape Edward Weston saw for one now vanished instant in 1925. Then we see his signature: the reifying, immortalizing equivalent of the fiat, "This note is legal tender," on the money we live by. And then comes one of many fleeting moments from the image's second life, the one that will now last forever. This moment takes the form, for now, of another kind of Daybook entry. On the day it records, the news read, "Sold for $1.6 Million Record."

Eighty-four years after Weston accepted a woman's body in the guise of lines, forms, and volumes, the New York Times helped its readers accept their newly impoverished economic situations by running an article about another artist -- one who made buying and selling into an art form existing purely on its own terms. His was an art of pure circulation, as Brancusi's was an art of pure geometry. The artist's name was Charles Ponzi, his art form was what is now known as the Ponzi scheme, and we are to read the article about him (Ralph Blumenthal, "Uncovered Manuscript Sheds Light on the First Ponzi," New York Times 5 May 2009: A19+) with the help of another photograph.

The caption to this image in the online version at reads, "When Ponzi's scheme started to unravel, investors tried to get their money back. This was the crowd outside his firm, at 27 School Street [Boston], on July 30, 1920." Without the educational guidance of those words, however, what we primarily see with our naked eyes is an eddying, two-part composition made of men's hats. Almost all of these are the flat straw hats called boaters which were standard summer wear for middle-class American men as of 1920. Looking closely for deviations from the standard, I spot only a few felt hats, a few military or police caps, a few of the flat caps worn by men of the working class, and one Panama. This, then, is a street scene portraying a society in which men regulate their looks by a norm. Only the words printed below the scene can tell us, now, that these men are out on the street because they have just learned that the norm was nothing but a work of art.

But near the lower right corner of this crowd of men enacting Charles Ponzi's performance there is an exception to the norm. It is this exception, in fact, which helps us understand the norm to be a norm.

This exceptional aggregation of people appears to be a family group. Among all these men, its body language is feminine. Leading the group is an older woman, with a younger one behind her and two children to her left. Behind the younger woman walks a young man, and next to him is another figure who may be a third woman. The two young women, and only they, are looking toward their right, away from the crowd on the sidewalk where they stand. The head of the young woman who stands closer to us is inclined forward, as if she is listening for something being spoken. She is placed symmetrically in the middle of the composition: behind the older woman with the children, before the young man and the other young woman. Surrounded by the circumstantial data that we will look at in 2009 and call "history," she was, on July 30, 1920, what Weston would have called a living, palpitating body. Living and palpitating, listening for words coming toward her through the air, she had a name and what she would have called a biography. But we know her now only as an image. In that form -- "entirely impersonal, lacking in any human interest" -- she will now live forever.

Her immortality came to her through the labor of two artists: an anonymous photographer on a summer day in Boston, and -- prior to the photographer, and enabling his work -- Charles Ponzi, a choreographer whose material consisted of crowds of desperate men. That is their glory, and it is a glory entirely impersonal: the rigor of "the love that moves the sun and the other stars." Weston and Balanchine and the other great modernists have enabled us who dwell in their aftermath to see form in the act of rising free from the body. And -- thanks to the art of Charles Ponzi -- for a while it was possible to believe that the ballet of money was a way of making that act of transcendence available as a second chance to those who possess neither beauty nor a camera.