Sunday, February 28, 2010

Large unconscious scenery

In the large unconscious scenery of my land with its lakes and forests . . .

-- Whitman, When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd, sec. 14

"It's almost as if they can talk," we say when we see patterned activity executed by the non-human. "It's almost as if they're thinking." Something that looks like art is coming into existence before our eyes, but neither this art nor its creator is anything but the play of some molecules under the explanatory dictation of physical chemistry.

I see blue and orange, overlapping like lacquer plates on a suit of samurai armor. I see the wasp's head, simplified like a Brancusi to its essential parts of a sensing apparatus (dark dull still eyes, bright moving antennae) and an active mouth. Knowing too that what I see is being underwritten by a tourist economy and its requirement for light and color, I see the leaf of a hibiscus, whose color and form are part of Hawaii's currency. Under a brilliant sun, a kind of Sotheby's is being reenacted: one kind of symbol system (call it art) sheared away from its originating biology and consumed by another (call it money).

But here there is no auctioneer to call out words that could give human significance to the exchange of reflex communication. The only words I can bring to the experience are my own. A wordy spectator, all I can supply is a stereotyped explanation of what I'm feeling. This, I think, must be dramatic irony. If only the wasp could speak to me and tell me how to feel. If only she could know.

But on college campuses, grassy spaces full of talkatoria, there are times when the play of instinct does take on words. At those instants, the beauty created by reflex action becomes the beauty of high comedy. Consider, for instance, the text known as the Kaye Report, at

Written by retired Chief Judge of the New York Court of Appeals Judith S. Kaye, dated February 11, 2010, and officially titled "Report to the Board of Trustees of the State University of New York," this text documents what happened after the administration of SUNY's Binghamton campus decided that its basketball team needed some really successful players. An early consequence of that decision played out on October 26, 2008, when one of the team's new stars, Malik Alvin, conducted a smash-and-grab raid on a Wal-Mart and collided with an elderly woman while running out the door with a stolen package of condoms ("Report," p. 42). Apprehended, Alvin was sentenced to an apology and some community service.

That much of the report is history. But its text makes the transition from history to art by presenting us these data in its creators' own words. On pp. 83-84, for instance, the report transcribes for us a series of text messages between Alvin and assistant coach Marc Hsu, with Alvin demanding money from Hsu to pay his community service fee and Hsu complying. Offered the opportunity to explain the words printed out on Judith Kaye's page, Coach Hsu simply denied that they said what they did say (85). It was as if he were creating a poem: playing with words as if they were a basketball in motion, nothing but the visible trace of a play of vanished invisible forces.

And then:
Click to enlarge.

Soberly, in accordance with the canons of academic respectability, the report brackets its editorial emendations: "Where [are you] at[?]" (83). Visually, too, the report is canonically academic. Its font is Times New Roman, Microsoft Word's default for all versions before 2007. Named for the paradigmatically respectable London newspaper that sponsored its coming into the world, Times Roman is a conservative font, with its decorative flourishes (such as its asymmetrical W) serving only to set off its sober ensemble like the tiny pattern on a funeral director's tie. Translated from the sans-serif and primary colors of a cellphone screen to the black and white employed by Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP, Malik Alvin's words transform their new context just as (T.S. Eliot teaches us this in "Tradition and the Individual Talent") a new poem which enters an anthology makes the whole old book new.

And, again, Coach Hsu simply denies that he and his collaborator Malik Alvin have written a poem. But about that wordy gesture, of course, a poem was already in existence to help us make our way through the expanding cloud of new beauty.

I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.

So thank you, text of the Kaye Report, for your brackets and their graceful educational gesture of homage to the old, dead language which colleges once existed to teach: "I left the stuff from the internet the same so you can know what you[']r[e] changing."  Thank you, Times Roman, for fronting for your content the way American universities front for their athletic programs. But above all, thank you, dull expressionless eyes and tightly packed sphere of thoracic muscles, for focusing the drive of a hard aerodynamic shape toward a hibiscus-shaped reward (you could call it a leaf; you could call it a condom) but never once breaking the beauty of silence to call it anything.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Art as appropriation

Here's Detroitfunk's take on the playful tourists of the art world. Somewhere in the great blankness, Andy Warhol is securitizing the asset.

But a difference between Warhol and Detroitfunk is that Detroitfunk and his camera make a way into the spaces under their gaze and record the traces of what once existed as human before it became archaeology, artifact, and (once it was finally dead) art.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Sous rature: illustration becomes invisible

Five years ago, a Danish newspaper published twelve cartoons which depicted the prophet Muhammad -- an act considered blasphemous by Muslims. In his review of a book about the affair, Jytte Klausen's The Cartoons That Shook the World (Yale University Press, 2009), Eddy Portnoy summarizes what happened next:

The cartoon crisis began in September 2005, when the nominally conservative Jyllands Posten Danish newspaper published 12 cartoons that featured the Muslim Prophet Muhammed as their mark, a provocative ploy meant to counter the news that a biographer of the Prophet Muhammed could not find an illustrator out of fear of fundamentalist retribution. After a few initial, small protests, the episode seemed to have fizzled, but the following February, the Muslim world exploded in protest, violent and non. What happened during the five-month incubation period between publication and explosion forms the most compelling portion of Klausen’s book.

And yes, people were killed in the protests. And yes, the entire nation of Denmark was subjected to a devastating economic boycott. Prudently, therefore, Yale University Press refused to allow Jytte Klausen to reproduce the cartoons in her own book about them. Writing in a liberal newspaper, Portnoy draws this liberal conclusion from Yale's action.

To many Westerners, the cartoon crisis seems like a wild overreaction to an obnoxious but ultimately innocuous set of cartoons. Regardless, its repercussions continue to abound. Certain Islamic countries, for example, have been working to pass anti-blasphemy resolutions in the United Nations. Upping the ante, the Organization of Islamic States wants to enshrine anti-blasphemy laws in the U.N. convention, making them enforceable. Last October, Pakistan requested "legal prohibition of publication of material that negatively stereotypes, insults or uses offensive language" on matters regarded by religious followers as "sacred or inherent to their dignity as human beings." Those are pretty broad reasons to put the cuffs on someone. To progressive democracies, this development should be extremely disturbing.

In December, the Vatican copyrighted the name and image of the pope. An attempt to control perceived blasphemies, this unprecedented step is a result of this whole sordid affair. "Pope on a Rope" may soon become a collector’s item. Also in December, the highly respected British journal Index on Censorship published an interview with Klausen in which the paper refused to publish the cartoons in question. When an organization that calls itself "Britain’s leading organisation promoting freedom of expression" censors itself, you know you’ve got a problem. Even Klausen said she was "flabbergasted" by this failure.
The ball continues to roll: Ireland enacted a blasphemy law January 1, the results of which we've yet to see. The first day of this year also saw the attempted murder of Kurt Westergaard, the Danish cartoonist who drew what is considered to be the most offensive of the original 12, by a Somali Islamist. Ultra-violence as a critical response to art has been with us since the Rushdie Affair: A demand that artists and scholars muzzle themselves does not seem to be the appropriate answer.

Now click on Portnoy's review at, and what you'll see there is an anti-censorship cartoon. That too is clickable. So go ahead and click on it.

Are you enjoying the funny joke that the liberal newspaper has played on you, and on us all?

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Houri 2

The poet Frederick Seidel is a minor Sylvia Plath. His 1998 poem "Racine," for instance, is an hommage to Plath's "Daddy" both in its doggerel prosody and in its Holocaust shock imagery. But the narrator of Seidel's version is a daddy himself -- a daddy who is part Baudelaire with a trust fund, part Hugh Hefner. Plath's daughter poem is about memory, but Seidel's daddy poem grows out of a parental power over memory. Another name for that power is nostalgia -- in this case, nostalgia for the days of potency in Milan

Twenty-some years ago while a motorcycle was being made
For me by the MV Agusta
Racing Department in Cascina Costa,
The best mechanics in the world
Moonlighting for me after racing hours.
One of the "Millin" women raced cars, a raving beauty.
She owned two Morandis, had met Montale.
She recited verses from the Koran
Over champagne in the salon and was only eighteen
And too good to be true.
She smilingly recited Leopardi in Hebrew.
The most elegant thing in life is an Italian Jew.
The most astonishing thing in life is to be an Italian Jew.
It helps if you can be from Milan, too.
She knew every tirade in Racine
And she was only eighteen.
They thought she was making a scene
When she started declaiming Racine.
Thunderbolts in the bar.
With the burning smell of Auschwitz in my ear.
With the gas hissing from the ceiling.
Racine raved on racing tires at the limit of adhesion.
With the gas hissing from the showers.

-- The Oxford Book of American Poetry, ed. David Lehman (New York: Oxford University Press) 923-24

"Raving beauty," writes the poet. "Too good to be true." The language is unoriginal, but originality isn't what nostalgia is about. Instead of looking forward in time toward new articulations of feeling, Seidel's nostalgic poem takes us on a playboy's tourist scavenger hunt for memories. On that premapped ground, users of words becomes tourists for the same reason they look at the pictures in Playboy: in order to open an account in an art bank and withdraw some of its currency of representation for the rainy days which are now upon them. For Seidel's persona, on his rainy day, the dream too is wet, and the bank's nice new free umbrella protects with the explicit fantasy term "motorcycle" and the  implicit fantasy term "Jewess." "Jewess" is not directly articulated in the poem, but it's built into the connotative logic underlying its language, where it pairs with "motorcycle" as one of the dangerously pretty things that Frederick Seidel, rich Jewish poet, writes poems about acquiring. For us who become complicit in the construction of the Seidel persona by (for instance) borrowing Seidel's umbrella to read "Racine," desire unfurls into envy.

The purpose of Seidel's own borrowing, the title "Racine," is to associate our desire and envy with a specifically aesthetic, specifically wordy kind of nostalgia. When nostalgia takes on literary form, every image it evokes becomes a phantom memory of something known from a page written by someone else. Accordingly, the language of such a fantasy is always second-order and derivative: borrowed, like the language of Seidel's verse. It can't be the record of an origination. It must be vicarious.

And the vicarious controls vocabulary even when its embodying dream is rated G and its ostensible view is toward the future, not the past. So in 1890, as he toured New York's slums for the estimably non-fictional purpose of housing reform, Jacob Riis still had time to look around him at a Jewish neighborhood and declare it filled with (what else would a sleepwalking boulevardier think of to say?) houris.

From How the Other Half Lives (1890).
Click to enlarge.

And "More, houri, more" breathed the semi-conscious but well-read Leopold Bloom in Bella Cohen's establishment in Nighttown.

In daylight, of course, the nighties of dream give way to something more practical and less touristy.

Jacob Epstein, illustration for Hutchins Hapgood's
 The Spirit of the Ghetto:
Studies of the Jewish Quarter of New York
(1902; New York: Schocken, 1966).

But this image is captioned  "Working girls return home." Evening returns alike to the tenements and to Wallace Stevens's houses haunted by white night-gowns, and the women in both sorts of homes change their psychic form as cognition give way to dream. But only the tenements of literature are haunted by Jewesses, and only the Jewesses metamorphose into houris. In the kind of literature that tries to be dream, houris are as immortal in their power over the metaphoric faculty as the naughty vampires of the Baudelairean pornographer FĂ©licien Rops.

Elsewhere, along the alleyways of the Ashcan School, the wardrobe of dream is different. The dreams themselves are just as powerful there as they are in Hugh Hefner's network of bunny warrens, of course, because that's the nature of dream. But on the Ashcan School's side of the tracks, the reading matter of literary dream is different, and its vocabulary may take on bodily form in flesh that's a little on the serious side for motorcycles.


John Sloan, The Masses, May 1915, back cover.
Echoes of Revolt: "The Masses" 1911-1917, ed. William L. O'Neill
(1966; Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1989), 208

It's still dream, of course, and furthermore it's still wearing the nighty that the Bank of Art gave us as a nice present when we opened our account. But at least this nighty reminds us that we don't have to have either Plath or Riis on the bedside table. 

So happy 128th birthday, Mr. Joyce, and thanks very much for teaching us that "houri" isn't a woman, with a woman's power over dream. It's a word from a dictionary, browsable or not as the state of the evening may suggest.