Tuesday, June 30, 2009

When contexts vanish, part 2

I was calling your attention to a pair of nineteenth-century girls posed for a tintype photographer in skirts and hats marked with the word "SLAVE." The girls were also garlanded with chains, and one of them was posing in a pioneer attitude. The girls were self-captioned with signs connecting them to an external context, I said, but that context is probably gone forever. What's left of the girls now is only their picture, and we're reduced to seeing that picture only in formal terms.

Of course a part of the curriculum of art education has always been the discipline of formalized seeing, but most of us don't see only formally and don't want to. It is not mere sentimentality to want to see through a family photograph to the real person that its array of pigments evokes. But we can't do that sentimental kind of seeing through unless we have a pre-existing idea of what lies behind the image. About an image posted to the Web by an online anonymity we can meaningfully say, "I love this picture because it reminds me of my dog," but the girls in the tintypes can't provide us with a dog to imagine -- or a pageant either, or a political rally, or anything to love. Whatever the tintypes that we see now may have meant to the girls and the people who made up their world in their lifetime, to us they can mean nothing more than light and shade, color and volume, form and formalism. The girls' chains might as well be shackling them for eternity to the surfaces of their tintypes, those little slips of blackened metal coated with a silver halide emulsion in which reflection from the photoreduced areas of elemental silver creates the illusion of white flesh and steely chain. The only context those images have is themselves.

Well, the comical impossibility of an auto-generated context ("I am a slave. You can tell because I'm labeled 'Slave'") was dealt with long ago by Shakespeare. In A Midsummer Night's Dream, when Snout explains that he's carrying a stone and some mortar to show us that he's a wall, we laugh because we realize that a metonymic label claiming to represent reality by association ("I am a wall. You can tell because walls are made of stone, and I'm carrying a stone") is always too small to cover the entire area it's supposed to represent. The man holding a stone is still a man; the white girls in the tintype studio are still white girls in a tintype studio. Metonymy hasn't effected the transformations it tells us it has effected. It hasn't changed its subjects' relations to us. Metonymy solemnly tells us, "Before Snout picked up the stone he was a man, but now he's a wall" -- and we laugh at metonymy, because we can see better.

But we also laugh because this particular failed transformation is reassuring. The play performed by Snout and the rude mechanicals originates in the horror story that is Ovid's Metamorphoses, a vast parable which says that transformation does occur, and we are powerless before it. You are not what you think you are, say the Metamorphoses; sooner or later, gradually or suddenly, you will become something other. The happy ending of A Midsummer Night's Dream, like the happy endings of other comedies (think of almost any sports movie, for instance), is simply an arbitrary assertion that the ceaselessness of change will now cease. At the end of the sports movie, the game has been won, finally and forever; at the end of A Midsummer Night's Dream, Hermia and Lysander, Demetrius and Helena, and Theseus and Hippolyta have entered the great unchange of happily ever after. And the laughable falsity of the tragic play within the play convinces us, by contrast, that the comic outer play must be true. But Ovid pokes his head around the closing curtain to remind us that the most fantastic words in any fairy tale are The End.

I once experienced both the metonymy and the realization of change's endless unmeaning, simultaneously. It was the loneliest instant of my life in language.

The time was midmorning on a February day in 1966; the place was the break room in Building 400 of the Greenfield, Indiana, laboratories of the pharmaceutical manufacturer Eli Lilly & Co., my employer. The macrotext was the Indianapolis Star, a newspaper whose conservative editorial views (Don't let the communists fluoridate our water!) permeated every page. The microtext that day was an article about an event in Bloomington, sixty miles south of where I sat reading. There in Bloomington, said the article, a man had recently delivered a poetry reading on the campus of Indiana University. The man who read the poems was never named; instead, the article referred to him only as "a 'poet.'" The scornful journalist thought his readers should know that the "poet" had begun the reading by announcing, "This is my wife, Peter."

I read the article. With some excitement, I thought: "I know who that poet is!" Then I thought: "I bet I'm the only person in the plant who does know." And then: "Or care."

On the frozen flatlands of Indiana, I experienced desolation.

I had been able to place an item of data into a context and give it meaning, but the meaning was incommunicable. Strictly speaking, the knowledge I had created had no meaning -- at least, no meaning for anybody in Greenfield, Indiana. In Greenfield, at the time, you could spend the night in the Hoosier Poet Motel, which was named after one of Ezra Pound's favorite poets, the Greenfield native James Whitcomb Riley. The site of one of Riley's most beloved poems, "The Old Swimmin' Hole," was still preserved in a Greenfield park. But it was full of rats, and I was alone.

In due time I left Greenfield for Bloomington, and eventually I read Ginsberg's own poem about the reading: "Auto Poesy: On the Lam from Bloomington" (The Fall of America: Poems of These States 1965-1971 [San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1972] 27). It isn't a very good poem, but for me it brings back memories of the drive east from Indiana on US 40 in the days before Interstate 70, with the crossing from Ohio into West Virginia at Wheeling: "Across Ohio River, noon / old wire bridge, auto graveyards." I enjoy that part because I can read through it to a sentiment of my own, as if I were looking at a picture of somebody else's cute puppydog.

But the process of evocation worked differently a few lines earlier. There, the poem describes the ride past "Eli Lilly pharmaceuticals' tower walls / asleep in early morning dark outside Indianapolis / Street lamps lit humped along downtown Greenfield" -- a ride made more interesting by the "Ho! Dimethyl Triptamine flashing circle vibrations" with which the poet was keeping himself busy at the time. When I read that, I protested to the book in my hand, "But Allen, all we made there was vaccines!" That little truth constituted the "Little did he know" moment that characterizes dramatic irony, but on the only stage where it ever will be performed there was no one but me. Mr. Ginsberg wasn't in the audience, and neither was anyone else. I had brought a context into existence, but it was a context doomed to go to the grave unremembered as soon as I do. Looking now at the tintypes of the girls costumed in their slave word, I realize that they and I are in the same historical situation of muteness before the event.

Still, I do draw pleasure from the tintypes. Maybe I don't really need any contexts beyond language itself. Cute puppydog, as formal as a Picasso!

Sunday, June 28, 2009

When contexts vanish, part 1

The two young women who look out at us from a pair of tintypes on the website of New York's International Center of Photography (http://museum.icp.org) are dressed in symbols. From under a hat captioned with the word "SLAVE," the first young woman looks futureward in the iconographic pose established for explorers and pioneers. With the help of that hand shading her brow, we may feel entitled to call the expression on her face "resolute."

Daniel Cowin Collection, The Museum at ICP, accession no. 70.2004.
Unknown photographer, about 1875. Click to enlarge.
The tintype process produced mirror images.

The studio setting in which this image was taken is right for a pioneer, too. Not yet fully pastoral, it shows a landscape like the one in George Inness's 1855 painting The Lackawanna Valley, where the train steaming forth from its roundhouse has upstaged the forests that are no longer there in the picture. On the mountain backdrop, they have been minimized to a color wash; downstage, they are only a dotted pattern of stumps communicating what was there before the ground and sky had been made conceivable as a landscape.

120 Great American Paintings
(Mineola, NY: Dover, 2008), DVD-ROM image 041.

This landscape was commissioned on behalf of the stump-making mechanism by a shaper of American landscapes: the Delaware, Lackawanna, and Western Railroad. But we have to call the person posed in the painting's foreground by a European term, "lad," because his Claudine pose tells us that his creator is one who has studied the culture of painting in Barbizon. But what about the presumably American woman in her Pocahontas landscape, with her slave hat and her slave skirt and her chains? And what about her companion?

Accession no. 69.2004

This young woman too is clad in allegories of servitude. But the painted landscape behind her is more civilized than the one in the first picture, with a conspicuous steeple like the one near Inness's Scranton roundhouse. And is that a bale of hay in the foreground, with a discarded garment draped over it in the mode of pastoral love comedy? (Or is it a runaway slave's bandana-wrapped bindle, with comic-strip hobo connotations?) And is there a hint of tentativeness in the fingers not fully touching the girl's hat, and an element of distraction in the tilt of her head and hips, and the beginning of a smile on her face?

A more modest question: what is the nature of the slavery being protested? Toward the end of Reconstruction, could these girls have been participating in something like a pageant about the Civil War? On the other hand, could it have been a suffragist demonstration? Or (though the poses and the expense of taking the pictures would seem to belie it) could the girls even be wearing the code of the scarlet letter in an unabbreviated form?

We certainly can't answer my first set of questions, and (barring the recovery of the tintypes' original micro-context) we can't answer the second set either. On the other hand, if the members of the board of the Delaware, Lackawanna, and Western Railroad were educated to any extent in Renaissance aesthetics, they had no trouble breaking the code of Inness's picture. It will cause us no trouble either, even though the landscape it depicts has vanished along with the emotions that once accompanied the sight of a locomotive. After all, The Lackawanna Valley now hangs on a wall in the National Gallery of Art, curated for our benefit by specialists trained in the code. In the mid-twentieth century, too, Leo Marx translated the code for us in one of the early classics of the American Studies movement, The Machine in the Garden. By this date, Inness's straw-hatted lad looking across stump-dotted fields toward the train has been allegorized. He belongs to education now. There is nothing more that he needs to say to us, because we have been taught that we can understand him.

But what of the girls in chains?

They are nothing but other people's MySpace pages now: the visible signs of emotions incomprehensible to us. There is one difference between them and the contemporary, however: these older images seem to come to us bearing the tribute of motive. In my June 7 post to this blog I found myself bewildered before a MySpace page expressing savagery under the guise of film appreciation, but these allegorical pictures seem to want to undisguise and unbewilder. They probably mean us viewers only good. But the context of that desire is lost now. We don't know where these girls posed for the tintypist or why, and because we lack those links to the world where the pictures came into existence, the pictures are now unreadable. Even though they are old, they are as bewildering as something new. They would probably remain bewildering, too, even if, say, we were to come into possession of program notes for the slave pageant they depict.

The pictures' body language insures that. Coming to us now from a corpus of idiom which has changed and then vanished, it tells us: You're too late; we can't tell you now what we were. Better if we had turned our backs on you like Inness's boy in the Lackawanna Valley. As it is, you've caught us staring forward into the future like Columbus or Daniel Boone in the schoolbook pictures we knew and you don't. From inside the frames that secure us to your wall, we see you fade and blur and vanish into words that can't be used to understand us: words like "museum" or "blog." Who are we when you have taken us there? We can't know, so you can't know either.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The glamorous art of life and death

At his studio in Gettysburg, the commercial artist Mort Künstler produces Civil War art in the mode of nineteenth-century French history paintings: minutely detailed, with the detail lovingly authenticated in pages of notes, and composed and lighted like tableaux vivants. One reason the South lost the war, we learn from Künstler's oeuvre, is that every time General Lee rode past a church with windows aglow, he stopped to strike a pose. http://americanspiritpublishing.org/gallery/merchant.ihtml

And the ratio of heroic Confederate poses to heroic Union poses seems to be about 5 to 1, probably for the same reason that Loyalist rioters against Romanian immigrants in Belfast model their rhetoric on Hitler rather than Churchill. Glamor loves losers.

The emotion that suddenly filled the radio announcer Herb Morrison's voice on May 6, 1937, as the zeppelin Hindenburg entered history in a hydrogen pyre, wasn't glamor. Glamor lives to surprise, but part of its fun is our reassuring knowledge that the surprise was prepared in advance and is fully under artistic control. Glamor would have edited Morrison's sobbing cry, "Oh, the humanity and all the passengers." It would have sneered, "Anticlimax" or "Bathos," and then it would have paced off the smoking ground where people had died and rearranged the corpses for better effect.

"Herb Morrison is a kind of artist," glamor would explain, "but my boy is Mort Künstler. Look how Elke Sommer comes blossoming out of her top like a motherly flower."

So how are we managing to see the cellphone videos from Iran's women's revolution today, and how will we remember them a year from now? I have no idea how to answer those questions, of course. But if today's moments ever are converted into Künstler images, that may be a sign that freedom will have to be deferred a while longer, because art will still be occupying the playground.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

No shades of gray

Caprices en blanc et noir, one of Debussy's last compositions, is a suite for two pianos whose title seems to be a formal contemplation of the piano as such: a music conceived as a dance for fingers moving in pure abstraction across keys white and black. As Debussy wrote in retrospect to his friend Robert Godet, "These pieces draw their color, their emotion, simply from the piano, like the 'grays' of Velasquez, if I may so suggest?" (February 4, 1916; translated at http://www.boosey.com/downloads/Holloway - Debussy EN BLANC ET NOIR - FP.pdf)

But Debussy wrote the music before he wrote those Olympian words; in 1915, when the German trenches were burrowing deep into the blood-soaked soil of France. The music itself is a war song. Moved by his country's suffering, Debussy attached patriotic epigraphs to the beginning of each section of the composition, dedicated the whole to fallen friends, and shortened its title to En blanc et noir. Musically, En blanc et noir is less daring than Debussy's great innovations of the 1890s; as Glenn Watkins says, it is "a straightforward admixture of well-known anthems, snippets, and discordant accompaniment" (Proof Through the Night: Music and the Great War [Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003] 93). But the musical reactionary Camille Saint-Saëns picked up the political significance of the name change and understood it to be part of another war being waged in tandem with the Great War: the war that the French political Right was then waging against modernism. "I advise you to look at the pieces for two pianos, Noir et Blanc . . ." he wrote to Gabriel Fauré, inverting Debussy's title into a no-shades-of-gray battle cry. "It is unbelievable, and we must at all costs bar the door of the Institute to a gentleman capable of such atrocities, fit to be placed beside cubist paintings" (Watkins 93).

Reading those words across the chasm of a century, we probably have trouble making the connection that Saint-Saëns made. Saint-Saëns interpreted Debussy's music as a manifesto, and manifestos are hard to read when their historical context has faded away. When the manifestos are made of words, their words become incomprehensible, and of course the manifesto Saint-Saëns thought he was reading wasn't even made of words. Even a mixed-media manifesto like this one resists our effort to think of it as an artifact with its own context.

The Daguerreian Annual 2000 (Pittsburgh:
The Daguerreian Society, 2000) 167. Like
most daguerreotypes, this one is a mirror image.
Home page: http://daguerre.org/index.php

The photograph depicts an unknown woman holding a copy of the 1856 edition of Leaves of Grass, the first to include the sexually explicit "A Woman Waits for Me." As Ed Folsom points out, that poem's title in 1856 was even more explicit: "Poem of Procreation." ("The Sesquicentennial of the 1856 Leaves of Grass: A Daguerreotype of a Woman Reader." Walt Whitman Quarterly Review 24, no. 1 [Summer 2006] 33-34.) Because we know that in his own time the scandalous Whitman was championed by some woman writers, we may consider ourselves entitled to think that this woman is another of the brave sisterhood who agreed with Fanny Fern's cry of praise for Whitman's radical innocence: "I confess that I extract no poison from these Leaves -- to me they have brought only healing. Let him who can do so, shroud the eyes of the nursing babe lest it should see its mother's breast." (New York Ledger, May 10, 1856. In Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass and Other Writings, ed. Michael Moon [New York: Norton, 2002] 799.) But that thought of ours and Ed Folsom's is probably unwarranted, because we can never know how to read the body language of this image of a book.

The face of the woman holding the book is inscrutable, for one thing. Expression was hard to capture by the daguerreotype process, because its very long exposure times made smiles almost impossible to hold. More significant, perhaps, is that the woman is holding her copy of Leaves of Grass upside down. Does that represent only a mistake in her pose? (Daguerreotypes were expensive, and the budget rarely included a line for retakes.) Is the book being held upside down as a sign of protest, like the Hawaiian flags flown by native nationalists in my state? If it is a sign of protest, what is being protested -- Whitman or his hostile critics? Does the book even belong to the woman, or might it represent something like a practical joke played by the photographer on an illiterate customer?

We could go on forever with this mise en abîme. Once we start looking at the picture, we have to go on, whether we want to or not. But what if we were to cut the process short by thinking in a non-verbal way of this mix of words entangled in a non-verbal context? What if, for instance, we were to consider the entire mixed-media image as a unified fashion statement, this way?

Unknown photographer, Daguerreotype of a
, c. 1845. Great Photographs from
Daguerre to the Great Depression
(Mineola, NY: Dover, 2008), CD-ROM image 006.

Like the 1856 image, this is a picture of a person holding a document. But unlike the copy of Leaves of Grass, the document in this picture is a vaunt of unreadability. Cut off at one corner and held at the bottom of the image, it functions only as a compositional element to carry the image of the table toward the center and contrast with the man's dark-colored pantaloons. Taking advantage of the grain-free nature of the daguerreotype image by clicking to enlarge, we can see that this document appears to be a newspaper; in fact, a copy of Le Figaro. That narrows the image's geography of provenance considerably. But the only geography that still matters for this image is the anonymous human one within its frame. There, the newspaper's purpose isn't to be read but to delimit. It prolongs the portrait's elegant division down the middle, where the brilliant checked pattern of the jacket snuggles a checked vest and a checked cravat like the banks of a fully dammed, fully controlled, fully fashionable strait. Above that arrangement, any man's face would look significant. Yes, we think, as we look: this person I understand.

Thinking that, we may then wish to continue our experiment in looking with a non-anonymous portrait. Holding the fashion plate's tweedy textures in memory as a control, we proceed to Bill Brandt's portrait of Dylan Thomas.

Brandt took this photograph in 1941, at the time when he was also taking his great night scenes of London under its wartime blackout. Here the ambient darkness has been brought indoors, where it becomes a black-on-black abstraction of leather, tweed, beer, and the alcoholic Thomas's pouched eyes, reddened nose, and blotched skin. That ensemble too can be read as a fashion statement -- a statement whose theme is something like "no light, but rather darkness visible." It was the text that Dylan Thomas carried to the United States after the war and performed until it killed him at the age of 39.

But it probably isn't there to be seen in the texts of Thomas's poems, any more than patriotism is there to be heard in Debussy's En blanc et noir. Saint-Saëns, trying to see cubism by looking at Debussy's score, was likewise reading deep instead of stopping at the surface, which is probably the only location where we can hope to find whatever meaning that work of art has. Of course, the literary part of Thomas's poems and the aural part of Debussy's music are probably all we are legitimately warranted in caring about. They're what their creators wanted to survive. Still, sometimes the ephemeral and epiphenomenal survive too.

In those decorative incidentals -- for fascinating instance, Brandt's blacks and the cheerful plaid that immortalized some nobody in 1845 -- the surface is all there is to be seen. And after all, as the blank face of the woman with the book of immortal poems is there to remind us, sometimes the shades of gray are no longer available. If we're to retrieve any remaining coherence from the wreckage of meaning after that loss, it may have to be the fragmented, illusory pleasure of unambiguous black and white.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

A note to Charles Montgomery

Thanks very much for your comment on my post about the poor woman on a street in Pyongyang, and especially for your last observation: "Almost ALL the photography I've seen of [North Korea] partakes of this 'camera is in a different world than subject' nature. It's like taking pictures at the zoo, but as though the occupants themselves built the structure." Your zoo simile reminds us all to reread Kafka's "A Report to an Academy," that definitive statement about the impossibility of communication.

One photographer who has looked at the impossibility head-on is Philippe Chancel, in his book North Korea (Thames and Hudson, 2007): a book of images of people surrounded by emptiness. In a technical note for Emily Dickinson specialists ("This Page Intentionally Left Blank: Janet Holmes Formats Dickinson," Emily Dickinson Bulletin 19, no. 2 [Nov.-Dec. 2007]: 18-22), the poet Janet Holmes and I discuss this image from the book ("Air Koryo flight attendant, Pyongyang") in connection with two other ways of depicting nothing.

One of those ways is Holmes's. Creating verbal artifacts out of what's left after words have been arbitrarily erased from poems by Dickinson, Holmes rewrites Dickinson as a poet of the white blanks between words. Even the title of Holmes's book, The ms of my kin (Exeter, UK: Shearsman Books, 2009; http://www.shearsman.com), represents what was left after she deleted part of The Poems of Emily Dickinson.

The other way, of course, is the way of Emily Dickinson, who has a whole special vocabulary of code words for "nothingness." Dickinson is the great poet of starvation and loss, and her experiments taught her that starvation and loss leave us in a kind of North Korea of the soul. There, she says, we have and we become only one thing: "that white sustenance, despair."

Meanwhile, a June 1 e-mail from the Galerie Philippe Chaume announces that "Making Worlds," Philippe Chancel's new collection of images from the United Arab Emirates, is now on display at the Venice Biennale. In the text of the announcement, Elise Legris-Heinrich explains:
Depuis ses débuts, Philippe Chancel photographie les sociétés autoritaires et les dictatures communistes en particulier. En 1981, il est le premier à se rendre en Pologne où a lieu un état de siège proclamé par le général Jaruzelski. S'ensuit une longue série de reportages jusqu'à cette année 2005 où il obtient un visa de près d'un mois pour la Corée du Nord. En 2008, il réitère l'expérience de l'utopie en se rendant aux Emirats Arabes Unis pour constater de ses propres yeux ce gigantesque chantier à ciel ouvert. Déjà, il constate des points communs entre ces deux pays : culte de la personnalité donnant lieu à une iconographie à satiété, concentration du pouvoir, contrôle sur les individus et surtout un déni de l'humain, revers de ces sociétés de l'hypertrophie régies par l'argent et le pouvoir politique.

. . .

Toutefois, les photographies de Philippe Chancel ne sont pas subversives. Au contraire, il pénètre au coeur de la fascination qu'exercent ces sociétés de l'image pour mieux comprendre les raisons de leur attirance et de leur répulsion. Ainsi, le cadrage de ses photographies est frontal et distancié pour répondre à son exigence de fidélité avec la réalité sans l'entremise d'un jugement ou d'un affect. L'esthétique documentaire qu'il met en place tâche d'oeuvrer là où la propagande des idéologies agit c'est-à-dire dans les apparences et les faux-semblants. Ses photographies mettent en abîme les rouages du pouvoir et questionnent l'image même.
Which can be translated:
From the beginning of his career, Philippe Chancel has photographed authoritarian societies, in particular communist dictatorships. In 1981, he was the first to go to Poland when it was under the martial law imposed by General Jaruzelski. A long series of reports followed from then until 2005, when he spent almost a month in North Korea. In 2008 he repeated the experiment of utopia in the United Arab Emirates in order to take note of that vast open-air construction site. He had already observed points in common between the two societies: a personality cult generating a glut of iconography, a concentration of power, control over individuals, and above all a denial of the human: the reverse of those societies of hypertrophy which are ruled by money and political power.

. . .

However, Philippe Chancel's photographs are not subversive. On the contrary, they penetrate to the heart of what is fascinating about these societies of the image in order to help us better understand why they both repel and attract us. So the composition of his photographs is frontal and distanced in order to comply with the demand for fidelity to what is real, without the mediation of judgment or emotion. The documentary aesthetic which it establishes seeks to do its work where ideological propaganda holds sway; that is, in appearances and illusions. His photographs penetrate to the depths of the workings of power and question the image itself.


Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The evidence of things not seen

In the most prominent position on page 1 of the New York Times for February 26, 2008, a brilliantly lighted troupe of young women performs a traditional Korean fan dance, one in which the performers dip and rise and turn to create the impression of a great flower turning before the light like a happy woman turning before her mirror. The performance made it into the Times because it was staged in Pyongyang in honor of a visit to North Korea of another troupe of artists dedicated to formal beauty: the New York Philharmonic.

Elsewhere in the Times's coverage of the visit, reporters noted that (unusually) photography was allowed from the orchestra's buses. Taking advantage of that aesthetic opening, Times photographer Chang W. Lee captured the image below this one, and the Times juxtaposed the two images with a single poker-faced caption: "A North Korean troupe performed in the capital, Pyongyang, for members of the New York Philharmonic on Monday. Earlier, a woman gathered firewood near the road from the city's airport."

In that lower image the colors occupy a different neighborhood of the spectrum. They are the drab shades that winter allots to daylight in the zones south of Siberia. And instead of triumphantly filling the frame as the dancing girls do in the upper image, this woman and her baby are set off on all four sides by wide margins of the blank landscape. Behind them, lined up neatly to create an artificial horizon for the eye, is a stone wall whose orderly granite courses are laid in the traditional Korean way, on the diagonal. But the woman's clothes are western.

In fact, they aren't just western; seen as we see them, from the west, they seem to belong less to western couture than to western literature -- specifically, the western novel of the era of Dickens and Hugo. The woman in the picture can't be much more than four feet tall. Her gloves appear to be men's work gloves, several sizes too large. In the United States her shoes would have been seen as comical a hundred years earlier, because they are the shoes of Charlie Chaplin.

And "gathered firewood"?

On the front page of the New York Times, the phrase even looks funny. I look at it again to be sure I'm seeing it in an urban newspaper as part of a description of life in a world capital. "Gathered firewood"? It isn't even a phrase reminiscent of Dickens; it's a phrase reminiscent of The Grapes of Wrath. By every standard except the trivial one of chronology, that pastorale predates Dickens's sensibility by centuries.

But what other language could the Times have used? Certainly no language available to it in the dialect of the Potemkin village that is Pyongyang.
Our literature, inheriting the traditions of revolutionary literature and art built up during the period of the anti-Japanese revolutionary struggle, made rapid strides after liberation. Novels, such as Sea of Blood, The Fate of a Self-defence Corps Man, and The Flower Girl, renditions of the immortal masterpieces created during the anti-Japanese revolutionary struggle into works of contemporary literature, were created with success. The question of depicting the leader, a burning question for revolutionary literature and art, was solved with credit.

-- Pang Hwan Ju, Korean Review (Pyongyang: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1987) 169
No; all we're left to understand with, I'm afraid, is formalism. We may gain a little for meaning by, for instance, juxtaposing the phrase "gathered firewood" with some of the other phrases in its vicinity, such as "New York Philharmonic" or "New York Times," and listening for the discordant connotations. Or we may choose to go back to the seekers for the instant when life turns into art -- seekers with the ear, such as William Carlos Williams or Charles Reznikoff, or seekers with the eye, such as Walker Evans or Henri Cartier-Bresson. A seeker with the eye might say, for instance:

Look at the repeating lozenges of that granite wall in Korea, and look at the repeating pattern of ellipses and lines in the iron railing which matches its course in parallel. In between, see how the woman's floppy clown shoes curve upward, and see the diagonal tilt of her bundle of twigs, cutting across the rectilinear civic grid she walks through. See, in the grays and greens and whites of this frozen landscape, her red coat . . .

and now, having disciplined yourself with that propitiatory exercise, can you bring yourself to look at her face?

Monday, June 15, 2009

Nakedness and the night shift

We learned again from the Abu Ghraib photographs what the fine arts had taught us long before: the clothed have power over the naked. Power amounts to the entire conversation in body language in this 1932 image by Brassaï.

It's easy to generate a feminist reading of this picture, with its basic division of male/female reinforced by other divisions of clothed/naked, erect/abject, and direct view/reflected view. Notice that the prostitute is actually standing behind her customer but that he is still taking the active role as he looks at her modest body in the mirror, and then you can throw in the term "gaze."

But one of the distinctive characteristics of Brassaï's art is that it subordinates all merely social, merely human aesthetics, such as the ones addressed by feminist criticism, to the formal demands imposed on his images by their satisfyingly tyrannical orders of light and darkness. Because the pattern of this image demands that faces be absent, the faces are absent. So if we wonder what expression the man in this picture might have chosen from his wardrobe of faces, we'll have to consider another kind of power image. This one, for instance:

Click to enlarge.

I found this image at the photography site http://www.nocaptionneeded.com, where it advertised a symposium called "The Aesthetics of Catastrophe" at Northwestern on June 5, 2009. All I know about the image is the title embedded in its metadata: "1906 Earthquake Train." Presumably it is one of the little local records of a catastrophe still remembered by history at large: the earthquake that destroyed much of San Francisco. Presumably the man in the picture is happy that he survived. Certainly his contrapposto pose communicates the same relaxed swagger as, say, Walt Whitman's in the title page daguerreotype that substituted for the author's name in the first edition of Leaves of Grass.

Notice, too, the way the man's hand rests on the wheel of the capsized locomotive. It speaks the body language of a conqueror. As my friend Walter Creed says, people love steam engines because their machinery is all exterior. In them we see a body that seems alive and muscled.

And now this mighty machine, the nineteenth century's paradigmatic image of progress, lies overthrown. Altered now, like one of the handcuffed prisoners at Abu Ghraib with a pair of panties on his head, it is less than the man who condescends to it, less than the girl, less than the dog. So we might take the expression on the man's face as a smile of triumph. The human has survived, says the smile. No matter how hot and panting the steam engine was until the moment the earth shook it off and moved on to its next customer, it was only a woman after all.

But this picture of the smiling railroadman was taken in daylight, in brilliant California sunshine. Brassaï, of course, is the photographer of darkness, and the expressions on the two faces in his photograph will forever be on the dark side of the image. The Abu Ghraib photographs too were taken during the night shift. That historical truth may be telling us something somber: that some kinds of catastrophe may turn out to be harder to survive than the one that once upon a time befell an innocently naked locomotive and the innocently clothed man who now touches it with an affectionately chaste hand.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Funny, you don't look . . .

For some time after Ezra Pound was taken into American custody in May 1945, his activities as a poet writing to the world from Italy continued. On October 28, for instance, his wife Dorothy wrote him to mention a visit she had received from the publisher Aurelio Marasà, who "hoped to publish works by EP and to circulate manifestos on his behalf" (Ezra and Dorothy Pound: Letters in Captivity 1945-1946, ed. Omar Pound and Robert Spoo [New York: Oxford University Press, 1999] 162n. Cited hereafter as Pound and Spoo). Two days later Dorothy explained in more detail:
[Marasà] has a publishing 'house' in Genova - Has done a de Luxe Cocteau "Plain chants" in french & Les E[nfants] terribles amongst others. He says he'll publish anything you want. He has a fairly heavy jaw bone: very nervous & quick, light brown eyes - dark straight hair, a trifle jap. this last. He reads English easily but can't speak it. I suppose there are newrich or oldusury in the show: haven't yet discovered. (Pound and Spoo 165)
In this passage, the family neologisms "newrich" and "oldusury" are metonymic code meaning "Jew." The literal translation "newrich" originates in a standard caricature of the Jew as nouveau-riche, like Meyer Wolfsheim in The Great Gatsby or Simon Rosedale in The House of Mirth, but its reference here is racial, not financial. Marasà's ancestors may once have had money, but Dorothy here is talking about his inherited physiognomy. Likewise, "usury," for Ezra Pound, is a term of art, but not an economic one. Transforming money to a biological theme, it unites images of currency divorced from human activity with images of Jews as parasites. But among the four roots of Dorothy Pound's two new words, perhaps the most interesting is the only one that uncomplicatedly means what it says: "old."

For a start, it is the one term with a quantifiable history, a history as countable as money in the bank. Having investigated, Dorothy now knows that the term of this history is precisely 1145 years, from the years 800 to 1945. On November 4, she writes to Ezra with that good news:
Marasà (Arabs in 800 in Sicily) & [Eugen] Haas came this a.m. The latter very large & sober & businesslike. They are setting up publishing together: at least Haas is joining M. They are full of friendship & kindness - (Pound and Spoo 171)
Here, Dorothy's genealogical parenthesis refers not only to Aurelio Marasà but to her dispositive finding about him: "full of friendship & kindness." Continuing the thread of thought that began in her October 30 note about oldusury, Dorothy's words of November 4 come to reassure Ezra that even though Marasà may look Jewish, he isn't. The thousand years that have passed without Jewish taint between 800 and 1945 are a fiat currency, a money based on trust. They tell Dorothy that Marasà's is an uncounterfeited physiognomy. His face is his history, and that history is virtuous per se, virtuous by the absolute standard and golden beauty of blood. Marasà's interest in Pound's art is therefore sound: a credit accumulated over centuries in a bank eternally liquid.
What thou lov'st well shall not be reft from thee
What thou lov'st well is thy true heritage

(Canto 81: Disciplinary Training Center, 1945)
And there we may leave Dorothy. On November 13, after a visit to Ezra in his prison in Pisa, she happily described her trip home to Rapallo:
I found a trattoria . . . where I fell in about 7.pm and had a perfectly delicious spaghetti al burro - & mark you, a great lump of butter, & cheese, an excellent green salad, & a very pleasant dry white wine, for 80 lire - not so bad - here it would cost double. Next a.m. I missed the autobus to Genova, not having inquired the previous night: but boarded the train, a merce [freight train], with cattle trucks for goyim. (Pound and Spoo 187. The Italian word merce is mistranslated in the original.)
The Poundian tropes have survived the ending of the war, says this cheerful complaint. We non-Jews are still at the mercy of usury, it says; still treated as sacrificial animals by the Jews; but at least the spaghetti is still good, and so is the poetry.

This wasn't the kind of poetry that was being read on the other side of the Atlantic in those years, of course. In his "Ode to Our Young Pro-Consuls of the Air," Allen Tate took sardonic note of the existence of disinterested, apolitical literature, held its practitioners in balance with the patrioteering men of letters Van Wyck Brooks and Archibald MacLeish, threw in the defeated commanders at Pearl Harbor, Admiral Kimmel and General Short, to make weight on the side of virtue, and learned from the experiment the satirical lesson he was supposed to learn: that literature is good for happy endings even if they happen to be fiction.
In this bad time no part
The poet took, nor chance:
.....He studied Swift and Donne,
.....Ignored the Hun,
While with faint heart
Proust caused the fall of France.

Sad day at Oahu
When the Jap beetle hit!
.....Our Proustian retort
.....Was Kimmel and Short,
Old women in blue,
And then the beetle bit.

It was defeat, or near it! Yet all that feeble time
.....Brave Brooks and lithe MacLeish
.....Had sworn to thresh
Our flagging spirit
With literature made Prime!

(Poets of World War II, ed. Harvey Shapiro. New York: Library of America, 2003. 23)
In a fairly short time after that, Brooks and MacLeish and their language duly vanished from history. But I write this note shortly after an 88-year-old man given to quoting Pound's ideas about usury and blood has walked into the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum with a 100-year-old rifle and murdered a black security guard. It appears that the Pounds' language is still a living part of our history. If it is that, we haven't yet gained enough historical distance to understand it.

Which leaves Dorothy Pound's letter as inscrutable to us as the Jews were to her and her husband. At the moment, there is no one to teach us how to read it, even though all it is is a happy story of a ride behind language's Little Engine that Could.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Motives for seeing

The new drawings in the online art gallery MyArtSpace were disconcerting, but I couldn't figure out why. Graphite renderings apparently copied from photographs, they were not just meticulous but overmeticulous. Those conventionally posed studio images of smiling children in 1950s haircuts and Victorian gentlemen in domineering beards, those flattened copies of already flat Japanese woodcuts -- the artist recycled them to a new life on his page, only to blanket their shapes with a fog of carbon and remake them into a kind of paper taxidermy. He (and his biography page at MyArtSpace tells us that he is a he, but nothing else) seemed to be the owner of a carbon museum, a collection organized around a principle of blackening and acquisition which remained inscrutable to me.

Then I clicked on the image of a shirtless man with muscular arms folded over his chest. Circling one biceps was a tattooed ring of barbed wire; over the heart was a tattooed swastika.

I thought: "Oh, it's prison art! It's the art of killing time!"

And then I could stop thinking. When I was actually looking at the images I had been puzzled, but once I could induce my puzzlement into the cell of a generalization, I felt at ease. Now I could lock the cell door, turn my back on the art, and walk away. Now I was in possession of a principle; now I could think I knew. I may have been entirely wrong, of course. Maybe this art didn't come out of a prison at all. But I no longer felt any need to care.

That insouciance of mine certainly owed at least a part of its existence to a technological change in our motives for seeing: the beginnings of the photographic mode of assisted perception. When Goya chronicled the Desastres de la Guerra a quarter of a century before that event, he took note of the human limitations of art when he wrote below an image of men, women, and children in the instant before a firing squad kills them, No se puede mirar. The words shape themselves into a hideously monitory paradox. We look at the picture, but its words warn us, "One cannot look."

Click to enlarge.

But photography seemed to promise us liberation from that failing of ours. In possession of what seemed to be a wholly mechanical, wholly impersonal art form, we could now begin to see past the images our imperfect eyes, those timidly insolent servants, delivered to us. Now we could strip bodies of their physical form and perceive them as ideas. As if we were aiming along the barrel of a musket, now we could look. Francis Galton, for instance, didn't just think of people statistically; he looked at them statistically. Thinking, Galton discovered the concept of regression toward the mean by averaging family members' heights across generations. Looking, he invented a camera which combined and rephotographed images of criminals in order to produce composite images of criminality itself.

(Daniel Pick, Faces of Degeneration: A European Disorder, c. 1848 - c. 1918. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989. 163-64.)

Galton's rephotography was an act of collection and connoisseurship. Like the artist on MyArtSpace, he was taking control over a corpus of faces. But here's an interesting difference between the two. If he's at all sophisticated about art since the coming of photography, the man with the pencil is aware that by recopying images he can't help ironizing them. If he's conscious of what he's doing, like (say) Cindy Sherman, collectors will buy his work to show that an artist's ironizing power can be acquired with a credit card. On the other hand, if the artist isn't conscious of the irony, a collector can approach with a stick-on label like "outsider art" and do the ironizing for him. Either way, the portraits after their transactional repurposing can work art's power on their collector's face. From neutral, its expression will change to an ironic smirk. That's how we'll know it has encountered art.

But Francis Galton, completely serious Victorian? What expression can he bring to our faces?

Born in 1822, Galton was already seventeen years old when Daguerre in France and Talbot in England led photography before the world's gaze, and the tiny gas flames on his criminal camera are a light into the past. At the least, this camera and the idea motivating the man who operated it are pre-Freudian. Our concepts of motive are different now, whether we're talking about a criminal's motive to commit a crime or a polymath's motive to create a work of art and then call it science. For us, art's demand, Se puede mirar, is both more trivial and more terrible than it could be for a photographer of Galton's time -- at least a photographer who shared Galton's idea of the photograph as a perfectly disinterested mechanism for seeing. Galton seems to have conceived of his photographs not as things to be seen but as things to be seen through. But one immediate consequence of the invention of photography was a vast literature of meditation on magic mirrors and what they reveal, from The House of the Seven Gables in the mid-nineteenth century to The Picture of Dorian Gray at the end, and we have been educated by that literature in ways that Galton couldn't be. Living at the time the early literature of photography was being created, Galton was denied our privilege of retrospect. Any artist, in any era, has to be ruthless toward his subject, but the knowledge that he comes late to the art will contaminate a modern artist's ruthlessness with irony.

So it may finally be a difference between motivation in successive eras which separates our experience of seeing Galton's photographs from our experience of seeing a superficially similar body of images such as Walker Evans's subway portraits. To purloin his surreptitious images, Evans concealed his camera under his coat and let it aim itself. He retooled himself as a thing, a part of the picture-taking apparatus. But that was a conscious devitalization, and its consciousness has made some now dead people live again, live forever. Galton, on the other hand, worked with specimens already taken, already preserved for study. His was an art of thought, an art of the already abstracted, an art of the dead, a taxidermy.

In its era, Galton's conceptual art helped people escape from seeing into thought; in ours, it is the remaining artifact of a former way of thinking. If it isn't also the artifact of a former way of seeing, that may be its way of telling us that Se puede mirar has to be a commandment delivered anew to every generation as the technologies of art continue altering the relations between the world and our motives to see it.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Beauty, the good life, and, on the other hand, politics

In the late spring of 2009, a little less than five months into the Obama administration, a pretty young New Yorker named Cheyenne Cherry got her MySpace picture into the tabloids after she broke into a former friend's apartment, vandalized and burglarized it, and then threw the friend's kitten into the oven and burned her to death. Earlier, she had gotten a boyfriend to steal a woman's dog at pistol-point, then shown up at the woman's home with the dog to demand a reward. There were also two other convictions for crimes of violence.


On her MySpace page, Ms. Cherry lists her marital status as divorced and her age as 17. She adds: "I would like 2 meet a cool person out going must have a swag i dont like cocky niggas must get money because i miss young fly and flashy."

As of June 7, the page was embellished with two graphics and a video, all drawn from one of the paradigms of the Gangsta aesthetic, Al Pacino's 1983 film Scarface. From the page's wallpaper, making the words on the page almost illegible, Pacino glowers out at the viewer, holding a fistful of $100 bills. Pacino's face is rendered in black and white, but the money is green. That, as it says on the one-dollar bill, is the Novus ordo seclorum -- at least for those who still live by an order imposed on them in a time of slavery.


And yet Rush Limbaugh says of President Obama, "I want him to fail."


Addendum, June 8: Ms. Cherry's MySpace page is no longer online, but here's a screenshot taken on June 7.


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 http://nytimes.com 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.