Rilke on visual art: An executive summary

Cezanne - Mme Cezanne in Red ArmchairIn Shimer’s fine arts class, we typically do a unit on Cézanne that includes a selection of Rilke’s letters written after a particularly vivid encounter with an exhibition of Cézanne’s art. Out of curiosity, I picked up Rilke’s more formal study of Rodin, which was published at about the same time he was writing the Cézanne letters. Both texts are beautifully written, passionate responses to artworks that Rilke had not only studied closely, but felt deeply. In them, Rilke displays a profound sympathy for both artists as artists and as human beings. I strongly recommend you read both if you’re into that kind of thing.

Nonetheless, it seems to me that an unsympathetic reader could conclude that Rilke is, in the last analysis, simply praising both artists in exuberant terms without providing much in the way of concrete tools for thinking through the nature of Cézanne and Rodin’s particular artistic achievements.

This reading, though plausible, is in my opinion ultimately wrong. What Rilke is saying about each artist is simple and yet challenging and profound. In his letters on Cézanne, the point he returns to again and again is that Cézanne makes his paintings out of color. In his book on Rodin, he repeatedly emphasizes the fact that Rodin makes his sculptures out of planes.

Read the rest of this entry »

Sculpture and the Uncanny Valley

Bernini, Rape of Proserpina (detail)
In this era of increasingly accurate 3D computer imagery, animators have come up against a problem known as the “uncanny valley” — after a certain point, the closer to accurate 3D imagery is, the creepier it becomes. The reason that it’s a “valley” is that it’s assumed that once we hit on absolute accuracy, it will no longer be creepy. I believe that assumption is unfounded. If we hit absolute accuracy, we would also hit the level of absolute creepiness. Human culture may never recover.

Humanity was in danger of hitting this uncanny point of horror at once before, during the Renaissance. At that time, painters and sculptors strove for the greatest possible accuracy, and the results are often startling, especially in the case of sculpture. Close-ups of familiar pieces like Michelangelo’s David reveal detail that is almost literally unbelievable.

Now for contemporary viewers, it’s the most natural thing in the world that all those sculptures are unpainted. Yet it’s now known that the reason for this is a historical accident. The Greeks and Romans painted their sculptures, but after many centuries, there was no apparent evidence of this fact. The Renaissance sculptors, in their passion to imitate classical models, thus left their sculptures unpainted.

There’s a certain irony in this fact, but there is also a saving grace — for imagine what would have happened if the Renaissance artists, with their passion for absolute imitation of nature, had actually combined sculpture and painting. A version of Michelangelo’s David that was painted as accurately as it is sculpted would, I submit, be utterly unbearable to look at. It would be too real. Only the abstraction of color allows the accuracy of the sculpture to provoke wonder rather than horror.

My proof for this is Bernini’s Rape of Proserpina, where the absolute accuracy of the form is so extreme that it can, at least for some viewers, overwhelm the abstraction from color and cross deeply into the uncanny valley. Where Pluto’s fingers touch her thigh, we believe we see real flesh, and the effect can either be appreciative disbelief — or revulsion.

How useful is Heidegger’s Origin of the Work of Art for art criticism? (Part 1)

van Gogh - Starry Night Over the RhoneThis week in my humanities course, we’re following up the music unit with a unit on visual art woven together with Heidegger’s Origin of the Work of Art. It’s spread over three days, and I pre-distributed some scans of paintings to them — day one is Van Gogh (for obvious reasons), day two is a mix of pre-modern and modern paintings (including a couple more or less totally abstract ones), and day three is Picasso.

In part I am doing this as an experiment to see how useful Heidegger’s theory is for the analysis of concrete artworks. One’s initial impression may not be promising, since it seems as though Heidegger is stuck at the level of the representational content of the work — his description of the Van Gogh painting at the beginning mentions nothing about more formal aspects aside from the abstraction of the background. Yet I think that the earth vs. world distinction and his claims for the way that the work reveals the strife between the two might open a space for more nuanced attention to the expressive content of the work on all levels. In Van Gogh’s Starry Night Over the Rhone, for instance, our discussion revealed the ways that his brushstrokes in the water and in the sky both contributed to a feeling of calm enclosure, as though the sky was almost a human-made dome. This shows a kind of momentary victory of world over earth, though the small couple in the lower right corner, standing as they are on uncertain footing, reminds us that the uncontrollable earth may surge forth at any moment.

van Gogh - Starry NightThe effect is just the opposite in another famous Van Gogh painting of a starry night, where the earth definitely has the upper hand over the small outpost of the human world. Here the swirling brushstrokes seem to present us with a natural world that has its own coherence and priorities that do not correspond to the ways we conceptually map it out — above all in the enigmatic plant that towers over the city. Our very perception of foreground and background is skewed, as the plant seems implicitly to be very close to us, and yet relates primarily to the swirling patterns of the sky.

The first painting uses a technique that is familiar from Cézanne, who often opens up a kind of “zone of indistinction” where individual brushstrokes belong to both foreground and background and thus begin to assert their own autonomy. Here portions of the waves could appear to be part of the masts of the ship. It seems that highlighting brushstrokes can reinforce the harmony of earth and world or else their strife — but I don’t want to suggest that the painterly technique is simply an indifferent tool that can be deployed at will. What I really want to consider are the implications of the fact that the artwork’s very materiality, which art as art always necessarily highlights, are a kind of upsurge of the earthly element. If a brushstroke calls attention to itself in seeming to refer at once to the ship’s mast and to the river’s waves, then it also calls attention to the earthly element in that the apparatus of the ship is a means of navigating the dangers of the waves.

One might see a similar priority of earth in the disproportionately thick brushstrokes in the sky of the first painting. Here we cannot help seeing paint, very emphatically — and in the squareness and the excesses around the edges, it can almost seem as though human beings have “bricked over” the sky. The nautical context highlights this, because it is most especially at sea that the stars — those brilliant balls of gas millions or billions of miles away — have been “re-purposed” by human beings as a navigational tool. Behind this bricked-over sky, though, in the very roughness of the surface of the painting, one can sense the unmediated earth vaguely threatening to break through, in parallel with the implicit though understated threat to the ambiguously positioned couple.

(I have ideas about how the other paintings I’ve chosen might play out in this scheme, but I don’t want to give it away in case one of my students is reading this. Hence I label this post Part 1, with the proviso that there may be no Part 2….)

Creepiness as an aesthetic judgment

[The following is a segment from a draft introduction for Creepiness, which did not seem to fit very well with the rest of the argument.]

Anyone who undertakes to define creepiness faces seemingly insuperable obstacles. How can we define a concept that can include such heterogeneous examples? We might be tempted to say that any quest for a unifying concept is doomed to fail, that creepiness simply has many different definitions. Yet there is a problem here as well, because creepiness cannot be easily replaced by other descriptors. If we were to call any of these examples anything other than “creepy,” something would be missing. For instance, we might call the sleazy attempted seducer pathetic, but that is something very different from being creepy. Similarly, we might call him threatening, but that misses the mark in the other direction. We may get the sense that the sleazy guy is not above resorting to a date-rape drug, but if he actually did so, he would no longer be merely a creep—he would be a criminal.

We might not be able to say what creepiness is, but we somehow sense that when something is creepy, it is very emphatically and precisely creepy—no other word will do. Indeed, if the phenomenon in question can be plausibly described by another word, that in itself disqualifies it as being properly creepy.

I have initiated many conversations about creepiness over the years, and each one confirmed this basic point. Though my attempted definitions of creepiness were always rejected out of hand, each group—whether I was out for drinks with a friend or at a dinner party, whether I was among academic colleagues or students or strangers—could identify creepiness with confidence. It was as though creepiness, while undeniably a subjective reaction, was nonetheless something objective. The structure is similar to Kant’s notion of an aesthetic judgment. When we judge something to be beautiful, we are not doing the same kind of thing as when we determine something to be triangular or wooden. We aren’t applying an objective standard or concept, but making a subjective judgment, a judgment about how something makes us feel—and yet this judgment is one that we expect other rational people to share. It is, so to speak, objectively subjective.

It may seem strange to extend this structure to cover the creepy, but Sianne Ngai has recently argued that we need to expand our aesthetic vocabulary beyond the region of the beautiful. In Our Aesthetic Categories (2012), she puts forward the categories of the zany, the cute, and the interesting, and I’d like to add an example that is closer to the familiar ballpark of beauty: namely, the tacky. When we judge something to be tacky, we aren’t simply calling it ugly, or garish, or unstylish. We are calling it precisely tacky. The quality of tackiness cannot be fully described but can be confidently identified—it is not an objective category, but an objectively subjective judgment.

Ngai’s goal in designating “our” aesthetic categories is not simply to enlarge our vocabulary for its own sake, but to help aesthetics take into account things like history and class and power. We can say the same of tackiness, a judgment that is always time-bound and caught up in the dynamics of class and class-aspiration. Something can be the peak of fashion one day and a tacky faux pas the next. What’s more, the same basic type of object can have a stylish and a tacky version, with the latter usually associated with the lower classes. For the wealthy and upwardly mobile, there are dark slim-cut jeans, while the lower classes wallow in their tacky “dad jeans”—and perhaps by the time this comes to print, the fashion-forward will have embraced “dad jeans,” rendering dark slim-cut jeans a tacky imposture.

Power dynamics are certainly at work in judgments of creepiness as well. Think of the creepiness of the stereotypical “redneck,” skinny and gawky (or repulsively obese) with a mouth full of crooked teeth, always living under a cloud of suspicion for insufficient exogamy. This judgment of creepiness goes hand in hand with the broader desire of many American elites to disown white working class and rural populations.

[And here the abandoned segment joins up with more usable fragments....]

Renegade Aesthetics – an InterCcECT reading group

The aesthetic resistance to theory. Aesthetic indistinction. The aesthetic that theorizes itself. The sensitivities and perceptions that exceed theoretical vision. (Not) knowing it when you see it. Autonomy.

Does the new aesthetic turn adequately grapple with whether there can even be such a thing as aesthetic theory? InterCcECT is excited to host a reading group on Renegade Aesthetics led by special guest Benjamin Morgan. We’ll be tackling selections from very recent works by Steven Connor (“Doing Without Art”), Sianne Ngai (Our Aesthetic Categories), and Jacques Ranciere (Aisthesis).  Contact us (interccect at gmail) for PDFs.

Thanks to the generous partnership of The Scholl Center, we will meet Friday 9 August, 2pm, at The Newberry Library, room B92.

What are you theorizing? InterCcECT happily announces your events and eagerly receives your proposals. And don’t forget to connect with us on Facebook .

Posted in aesthetics, Chicago, Interccect. Comments Off

Neoliberalism and Real Socialism

It’s often said that socialism is the arduous path from capitalism back to capitalism, but Blood and Treasure suggests that neoliberalism is the arduous path toward Eastern bloc-style “real socialism.” His focus is on “urban renewal” projects in London, but one can make a similar case for the mantras of deficit-cutting and “education reform” in the U.S.

Eastern bloc socialism had to keep going through the 1970s and 80s, inspite of lagging growth and failed ideological hegemony, because nobody knew what else to do. This is the stage neoliberal policy-making has now reached. The difference is that there is still one area of our economy that is still moving and changing, namely the money economy, with corporate profits high and financial innovation ongoing. What seems to have changed, post-2008, is that the price paid for this monetary dynamism is that the rest of us all have to stand completely still. In order that ‘they’ in the banks can cling on to their modernity of liquidity and ultra-fast turnover, ‘we’ outside have to relinquish our modernity, of a future that is any different from the present. Finance is to our sorry stagnanat societies what the space race and the Cold War were to the Eastern Bloc countries of the 1970s and 80s, the cost that we are offered no choice but to carry collectively, with the result that our cities and economies start to become tedious processions of the same.

The whole piece is well worth reading.

A Note: On Apocalypse, Moby-Dick & Job

[Originally posted over at my joint, but given the meandering path it took into things religious I thought I'd cross-post it here.]

Dear _______,

Your note has made my day, and it’s only yet 9 a.m. It reminds me of a conversation I was having last night with a friend in which I tried to explain why I don’t regard myself as a pessimist, in the face of all contrary evidence and claims by others.  I am, I insisted, under the influence of maudlin-making ale, an idealist who feels there is no place for ideals in the world. Of course, I know this sounds pessimistic through and through, but in my reckoning it is what feeds the Romantic / apocalyptic experience you mention.

The failure of words (& other communicative / artistic media) is necessary to their creative function. My friend and I don’t wholly disagree on this, but he seems more inclined than I to speak of one’s engagement with art as ultimately, if not immediately, disentangled from the world. While I agree that art is not wholly determined by the limitations set in stone, some quite literally, I am allergic even to a conversational nod that it ever stands beyond the fray, disinterested, hands-clean or abstract. You and I agree, romanticism & apocalypticism are indelibly linked, and as such remain inevitably messy. This messiness needn’t necessarily be a flaw, any more than existence as a whole is a mistake. I don’t see a position from which we can make such an evaluation without, in the process, doing much real-world damage. Though this has not stopped us from doing either. Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in aesthetics, art, Job, Melville. Comments Off
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