August 14, 2012

Unknowable masterpieces and other catalog pitches

Somewhere upstream, I've been using a billiards boat by Rudolf Reiber to ponder the significance of the work of art yielding a good yarn vs. it being built from elements awkward to relate. When I feel I'm saying something witty by merely recounting the set-up, that's not just a social gift by the artist, but also relieves me from the duty of explaining the edificational use every work of art is expected to have, sharpening our mistrust of the act of experience.

Some of Rudolf's pieces make pretty good conversation, but thinking about the last bunch it struck me that maybe they were overdoing things in the opposite direction, by stating all that needed to be said and not leaving much room for thought to the viewer. (From me, that's not a dig, I want the artist to do all the work and act as a consumer myself.) This is not because his art would be making a concise statement about some objective, though, instead it creates a situation where connecting the dots might feel like an exercise in pedantry. So, to save the art from being smothered by close attention, here are a couple of catalog piece pitches for Rudolf.

Last year, he made A Whiter Shade of Pale, where he painted the four walls of an exhibition room in the shades of white used by leading art institutions: the MoMA, the Vienna Secession, the Centre Pompidou, and the Tate Modern. All there is to see are title cards near the edges of the room, naming the brand of white and the institution. (Accordingly, on his website, Rudolf presents the work as a zoom-in on one of these title cards (you'll find it after the link under "works, solid.")) An accompanying catalog essay would easily write itself. Since it's a piece about the White Cube, the essay would obviously start with a motto from Brian O'Doherty on the "Ideology of the Gallery Space." Then there'd be the history of the white monochrome, Yves Klein exhibiting an empty gallery, or, if a more historical take were required, centuries of trompe l'oeil wall painting. After such displays of profundity, the essay could end on a facetious note, with a quote from the lyrics of the Procul Harum song: "The room was humming harder / as the ceiling flew away," a clear reference to the defective neon light straining to contribute to the glare of the white cube.

But all of that is squirrelwork. So here's the real pitch: I will order me a set of Rauschenberg White Paintings from the Chinese internet site, whose showrooms I have tested in the pic above, offering "real" copies of historical masterpieces. I'll hang hang them on the walls of the installation (if such it is), then return to the White Cube everyday with fresh eyes and record my changing impressions of the canvases in situ. (That of course refers to T.J. Clark's The Sight of Death, subtitled "An Experiment in Art Writing," for which the author visited a couple of Poussins over a stretch of time. I am restaging the experiment to prove its objective textual results.) Obviously I cannot foresee how my own experiment staring at dead wall space and at the work of art in the age of cheap manual reproduction will be colored by the subtle shadings of the different institutional whites, but by the end of the process the white monochromes on white background should have developed sufficient shadings that I could name a Robert Ryman period for each Eskimo word for snow.

This is Secret from 2012 (in Rudolf's Suspiria solo show at Payne Shurvell). He commissioned his partner to do a painting for him, which was then packaged away into the pictured crate. Nobody has seen the work except the painter, not the artist nor gallerist or buyer (who have to sign an agreement not to open the thing). It's maybe not the strongest work, since this kind of thing has been done before . . . though usually the artist is the one in on the secret, so here lies the shift in meaning: the hired hand (more typically the studio assistant executing work according to the instructions of the master) is the only one knowing the content of the work, though that is to all purposes completely overshadowed by the discretion of the master, who keeps the work on a pure meta level.

If we want an essay to add something to the piece, then we would have to flesh out the plight of the assistant, make that which is packed away not just a prop in a conceptual ploy, but a secret of real value, something whose unattainability actually hurts on some higher kind of level. What we will do to achieve this, is to appropriate Balzac's classic story, The Unknown Masterpiece (you will remember, male white genius tries to paint beauty but can't to his own satisfaction, finds the right model after many years, is inspired to a frenzy of creativity and paints the perfect painting, only to find that others will see nothing but a chaos of brushstrokes (and one perfectly executed foot), leaving the masterpiece unknown since it exists only in his head). We won't need to rewrite much, a word here or there, a gender switch: our heroine will be driven by the desire to create a perfect painting worthy of the scheme the artist had thought out for it (btw, think of the story Rauschenberg told how de Kooning selected a good drawing for him to erase: "I want it to really hurt," he said), then we'll change this into an artistically happy ending, where she does create an undubitable masterpiece . . . though of course we'll never know that and even the artist won't believe she has it in her. (Tense conversation over the kitchen table. Let's hope the couple will somehow cope with the psychological complications that our essay will bring on them.)

In that same exhibition, Rudolf showed The Silence, which is a braille transcription of Ingmar Bergman's film as a 3-D movie. Again we can join the dots. It's "silence" during the Cage centennials and the year of the Paralympics. Silence, which according to Beuys has been overrated in the secretly busy Duchamp, moving at us like the names of stars on the silver screen in endless opening credits. This film gives haptic a bad name. 

But I'm not even attempting to go into the motions. Despite the artist covering all the angles, the piece has a purely slap-to-the-head kind of brilliance.

It's a braille movie in 3-D. 

May 28, 2012

More to laugh than to make you cry

This is my favorite political painting: Apollo and Marsyas by Bartolomeo Manfredi, an image from the class wars, 1620 as well as today. This spoilt brat from the one percent, slightly flabby because of all the drugs and good times, but powerful and so damn worldly wise and dangerous. He doesn’t blink an eyelid while methodically skinning us alive, he’s rather curious as to how we’ll take it. What can we do? We stare inwards in a resigned sort of dignity facing the question: at what point did it go so completely wrong? We didn’t have a chance ever for a second, did we? A painting so to the point, it’s still the same confrontation and the same outcome 400 years later . . .

I’m not being clever, by the way, this is what it really is. Just try a quick search and you’ll reassuringly find that the Marsyas myth already played a symbolical role in the class struggles of late Roman antiquity and figured in the political stage plays of the time, and that later it was discussed in that light by historians such as Giambattista Vico in his New Science from 1725. Apollo stood and stands for the patricians, Marsyas the plebeians. Class confrontations are nothing unusual in the art of the time, even though they’re mostly interpreted more mildly. You will know Velázquez’ Apollo at the Forge of Vulcan from the same period (around 1630, see here a detail). It’s similarly obvious about the artist’s sympathies with down to earth natural dignity rather than the fop satirized by a halo of self-importance. Still the image is much more complicated and much less political. It is serious about telling the myth (the details of which don’t interest us here), and more than about class conflict itself it seems about a contrast between fancy decadent high art (Apollo the god of music and poetry) vs. the mythical blacksmith as an honest craftsman. So there is satire, but not the brutal urgency of the Manfredi. But then nothing I know really compares to that.

I am thinking about favorite political art because I have just read T.J. Clark’s fantastic book Image of the People about Courbet as a political painter in the aftermath of the 1848 revolution. What makes the book so great is that it allows no easy connections between an artist’s interest in the people, his realist efforts to catch a truth about them, and the resultant political impact of the painting. Clark isn’t the only one to reject these easy connections, but I don’t think I’ve ever encountered such a thorough dividing up of all the elements at play: what the painter knew, what he wished but failed to express, what the painting knew (more than the painter, of course), what it accidently communicated at its time and now reveals to us, and how the mindframe of the contemporary viewer would allow only certain parts of the message to be painted in the first place. In the most spectacular chapter, a handful of the stone cold classics of realism slowly travel from the countryside to Paris over several exhibitions after the Salon of 1850 had been postponed. They were well received but nothing special in Ornans, where they’d been produced, immensely successful in Besançon, purposefully ignored in Dijon, gaining ever more political heft until in Paris they became a statement, because the suffering peasant population there was a headline not a fact of life and as such had more impact. And why did the country personage look so bourgeois anyway, it was insidious.

Today a painting like the Burial at Ornans cannot be read without a guidebook (well, not by me), but Clark also shows that city audiences then were almost as clueless as we are in front of the object. He quotes the critic Haussard who asked what the viewer was to make of “this long file of ludicrous masks and deformities copied from life . . . those two churchwardens with noses as crimson as their robes, this joker with the funny hat and turned-up moustaches who carries the coffin, this brawny gravedigger who poses solemnly on one knee at the graveside; this seriousness and this buffoonery, these tears, these grimaces, this Sunday-best mourning, in black coat, in smock, in beguine cap, all adding up to a funeral from some carnival, ten yards long, an immense ballad in painting, where there is more to laugh than to make you cry?”

Clark makes sense of all of that, he paints the social situation, the bourgeois fears, he shows how the paintings could be felt to threaten exactly because the motives behind them stayed unclear and so they could be connected to something larger than the socialist leanings of their author, bad enough as that was . . . But to apply his thorough research and ingenious reasoning to the fullest effect, there is one thing Clark must do: cut off the timeline before Courbet starts painting completely unreasonable paintings. Clark like others just mutters something of a descent into alcoholism and fades out early. Because, look at this, from 1861:

Alcohol might explain it. The stag fleeing from the hunt, throwing a pained look skywards, seemingly checking the weather . . . but then I remember the contemporary review of the realist masterpiece above, and isn’t this also “a ballad in painting, where there is more to laugh than to make you cry?” More responsible than drink might be the virtues of academic painting, like catching a moment most pregnant in narrative which would ennoble a nature piece to almost the status of a history painting. The same aspirations could also explain the somewhat too human expression of the stag (which reminds us of Landseer’s lifesaving dog, the forebear of the Disney comic which has had two appearances already on this blog, so enough of that).

While we’re in somewhat hilarious mood, let us look back again to one of the realist classics discussed by Clark in detail, the more obviously political Stonebreakers of 1849:

This is one of the most interpreted images ever. Courbet himself said the moral was that in this job you started carrying huge loads like the young guy and ended up bent like the old one. The men are rendered anonymous, one averted and one below the rim of his hat, which is usually read as a meaningless job killing the individual. So this is realism, a word that today seems to mean an artistic approach, but sometimes it will mean no more than a thematic engagement with some kind of low life. Because the method is rather Victorian in its close realism of detail and overall poetry, and doesn’t the picture look almost related to something like, say, a William Dyce? (Partly because the coloring is somewhat unlike Courbet—the work was destroyed in 1945 so the photo looks almost handcolored.) Courbet had seen the two stonebreakers out on the road and then invited them to the studio as models. Probably the pot sat, too, and some heaps of stones were arranged for scrutiny. The old man is carefully if stiffly bent, his left knee cushioned by some yellow grass. And then the nicest touch of balladry, this time with a more subtle humor that just makes you smile: after all the years on his mind-numbing job, the old man still puts such loving care into each single blow. He is about to hit the individual, smallish stone after some more moments of almost Zen-like concentration . . .

Contrary to the Manfredi, the image no longer works like it used to. It does not tell you about the plight of the plebeian, it is no avatar for social change. Especially when you compare it against Jean-François Millet’s prose statement on how work makes you tired and stupid a decade later:

April 20, 2012

The audience object followed him everywhere

I’ve written a rather lengthy article on performance art with musical leanings, Fluxus to now, for the recent Eartrip issue. So if you have any interest in the music and antics of, in chronological order of appearance: Wolf Vostell, Joseph Beuys, Charlotte Moorman, Nam June Paik, Allan Kaprow, George Brecht, La Monte Young, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Mattin, or Taku Unami, you can download the magazine from this site and read it. While you do that, I’ll stay here in the Beuys room, wishing I had a nice pillow of lard to lay my weary head on.

Missing in my list is John Cage, who does make a short appearance, but it still surprised me how unwilling he was to be integrated into the Fluxus part of the story. Obviously he would belong at the beginning of that. For example: one of my other tasks while writing this piece was the translation of a forthcoming essay on Cage’s 4' 33'' by Dieter Daniels, where the author relates an anecdote on how Cage would allow the complete credit for Fluxus to be ascribed to him: When in 1990 I asked him in a letter if George Maciunas wasn’t overstating things when he called the detailed Fluxus charts he had made the Travels of Saint John—because they feature John Cage as the most important protagonist—Cage simply answered: ‘No.’” Or take the Fluxus chapter in Michael Nyman’s Experimental Music book: it begins with Cage at his first happening in Black Mountain College 1952, holding forth from on top of a ladder (!!!). This is the source, isn’t it.

Well, twenty years before Daniels asked him, Cage sounded much more uncomfortable with the artists whose work seemed to somehow draw from his fountain.* In For the Birds, conversations with Daniel Charles from around 1970, he said: “I am not very familiar with Fluxpieces; I believe it has something to do with distributing directions to the audience concerning the most varied actions.” Which was meant as an insult, since intentionality, or rather the lack of it, was what at that point he was most interested in. And “distributing directions” would be the most evil thing an artwork could do. In Allan Kaprow and Fluxist Dick Higgins’ work, “intentionality is present,” he lamented. “They make true objects of their happenings.” If that doesn’t sound like a mortal insult today, objectification seems to have been a mighty weapon back then. Oldenburg (as quoted in my essay) impishly saw the audience as a mere object to be provoked, and then of course think of Michael Fried’s Art and Objecthood from 1967. If a thing materialized that much, it was a bad, commodifiable thing. Compare against that Cage on why he did it better: “I, on the contrary, am committed to letting anything happen, to make everything that happens acceptable.” (Which sounds a bit like Jeff Koons embracing our past, shameful taste and all.)

Daniels points out that this acceptance of everything which might happen doesn’t mean freedom for the performer, as becomes clear from a letter Cage wrote to the orchestra of the Zürich opera, berating the musicians that they had misinterpreted his work. But as a listener, you’re even worse off, you sort of need an instruction manual for 4' 33'', there’s so much you can do wrong. The audience at the premiere in 1952 were wrong. Cage: “They missed the point . . . because they didn’t know how to listen.” The listener is bound to fail.

Except George Brecht might still save the day, because around 1959 he came up with the concept of the virtuoso listener. Brecht’s score of the same name simply said: “Can hear music at any time.” Which has been read as a jibe on 4' 33'' and would be pretty funny as such, though a bit square. But it can be much more than that, since Brecht answers a real need that Cage’s piece poses. If (pretty big if) the performer of 4' 33'' doesn’t get in the way of the experience, the burden of carrying the work is shifted to the listeners’ side, who have to find something they can hear like never before. When there’s only the usual shuffling and coughing, they are in desperate need of listening virtuosity to even begin coping. Because Cage hasn’t been distributing directions, he’s been dropping urgent hints elsewhere, and now the audience object has to follow him and make the event happen in exactly the right way.

Maybe that pressure on the audience to perform has contributed to the piece’s astonishing resonance, just as much as its position in musical history as a point of no return. Cage himself was the very definition of the virtuoso listener, for whom “all sound may be music” (Brecht), but once everybody was in on basic virtuosic listening techniques, 4' 33'' became an incredibly fruitful influence on other music. There is now a deep tradition of composing with silence or sounds from the everyday without the pressure to deliver musical events (though still with high pressure on the audience to make music out of incidental sounds and noises).

Cage was right about the objects. Brecht’s pieces work best when little events indeed become like objects, or maybe even only possible objects. There is now a tendency to read the work in fashionable terms as pushing the boundaries of music. So thanks to Brecht dripping water has now become music. Polishing the instrument is music, too, proof, check, andsoforth. That would make Brecht’s work an appendix of Cage, though still an interesting one, since the areas he pushed the boundaries into were extra-musical but sort of believable as compositional events. It is maybe no coincidence that where Brecht staid within undoubtedly musical territory, his work was maybe not at its strongest. For a Drummer from 1966 read: “Drum on something you have never drummed on before. Drum with something you have never drummed with before.” These are wise words for the drum clinic, but as a performance score, they don’t exactly encourage reading deeper layers of meaning into them.

The Fluxversions of this piece (usually retroactive notations of realizations found for a score by the composer or his close circle) are immediately more interesting, if seen independently from the main score. Fluxversion 1: “Performer drums with drum sticks or drum brushes over the surface of wet mud or thick glue until brushes or sticks get stuck and can’t be lifted.” This is nice as an imperative to fail and so sends a different message. Since the outcome is fixed, though, and it probably would take a good amount of science to find a mud or glue which would really grab hold of the sticks or brushes instead of just hardening to the attacks, probably performers must rather choose to act the part—and as fiction the exercise becomes less interesting than as genuine experiment.

The second of the pieces also invites an entertainment approach: “Performer drums with sticks over a leaking feather pillow making the feathers escape the pillow.” The fifth is just awful, but strictly music again: “Performer dribbles a ping-pong ball between a hand-held racket and drum skin.” Seven is the most interesting since it has an extra layer of meaning: art being used for something useful (against the classic Oscar Wilde definition that it must be “quite useless”): “Performer drums with brushes inside a vessel filled with cream until cream is thick.”

An earlier piece by Brecht, Incidental Music from 1961, proceeds from a recital situation and, like the drum thing, distorts it through elements of absurdity, of failure, and while not of usefulness, of being used like a tool. One jumping-off point seems to have been Cage’s piano preparations and playing inside the body of the instrument. After the piano seat has been tilted against the instrument, Incidental Music part two of five goes: “Wooden blocks: A single block is placed inside the piano / A block is placed upon this block, then a third upon the second, and so forth, singly, until at least one block falls from the column.” A very cumbersome instruction for a simple task that children will discover on their own. But here there is nothing to discover, the game is surrealist in the incommensurability of the elements, and the ultimate failure is methodical.

The performer then photographs the situation, throws dried peas or beans on the keyboard (Dalí reference?), before finally, in the last part, “the piano seat is suitably arranged and the performer seats himself.” Him seated there, the obvious next act to follow this up with would be a romp through 4' 33''. Under the title: Music for Piano Lid.

There is a kind of influence, which you need to acknowledge because it is historically important in the chain of events, but which does not really help understand the work, if you take it in terms of content, because the temperaments of the supposed master and those following might be too different. Keith Rowe uses an expression for that which I think works very well, when he says (e.g. in a conversation with Radu Malfatti on the Erstwords blog): “One way of being influenced, is that people give you permission to do things. I always feel that Cage gave us permission to do something.” It was nice to find that this was actually an expression used by Cage himself, here talking about the time that he, Morton Feldman, David Tudor, and Christian Wolff met in the early 1950s (quoted after Calvin Tomkins): “Things were really popping all the time. Ideas just few back and forth between us, and in a sense we gave each other permission for the new music we were discovering.”

* Salomé Voegelin in Listening to Noise and Silence compares 4' 33'' to Duchamp’s urinal. “In many ways like Fountain, 4'33" is a ‘ready made.’ It brings silence, an extra-musical sound concept, into the concert hall, and thereby asks comparable questions of musical materiality and its conventions of performance as Duchamp did in relation to the aesthetic content and exhibition of visual art works by bringing a urinal into the gallery space. Both works introduced new, everyday, material into the realm of art and broadened the artistic process, proposing new aesthetic possibilities.” This flies in the face of most readings of 4' 33'', which usually go along the lines that silence does in fact not exist in the everyday (and therefore it is rather the concept of silence in music that is questioned to allow for the sounds that always will exist independent of the situation). But then . . . in my Eartrip piece I niggle about Brecht’s Drip Music often being realized with a pour instead of a drip, so that it sounds like somebody taking a leak! So Brecht’s piece would be a reference to 4' 33'', which I hadn’t caught before reading Voegelin’s book, and probably drops a broad hint for us to understand 4' 33'' according to her terms?!