Archive for the 'Art' Category

Spontaneous kindness is to hipsters…

as high beams are to deer.

Comrade Stalin would be proud

I’m no architecture critic, but as I was looking at photos of the Stiftung Denkmal für die ermordeten Juden Europas (Memorial to the murdered Jews of Europe) in Berlin, I felt that I was seeing something of the apotheosis, perhaps the climax of the grey concrete curtain wall style of architecture which just at the moment of its seeming expulsion from Eastern Europe has begun incubating with renewed frenzy in the rest of the world. Perhaps that is because the ostensible purpose of such a style finally becomes entirely explicit with its politicization.

I have lodged before my criticisms of the whole notion of Holocaust art, which generally takes its tone from Adorno’s admonition that after Auschwitz all poetry is barbaric. Holocaust art for the most part shares with the avant-garde a total contempt for bourgeois taste and comfortable aesthetic illusions, but in this case the criticism is more substantial than a mere matter of anxiety of influence. It goes something like this: accepted societal art and morality has proven callously indifferent to, if not directly responsible for, the Holocaust, as well as the slightly lesser crimes of imperialism, etc. Therefore, the role of Holocaust art is to shred the illusions and to present the naked truth to the viewer without any mediation. This tendency couldn’t be more obvious at the Berlin memorial, which consists simply of a bunch of blank, impassive concrete blocks. At least one critic has applauded this approach as evading the “facile symbolism” of, for example, the proposed 1776 ft. Freedom Tower. And yet as has been noted elsewhere, the memorial looks like nothing so much as a strip of Soviet apartment blocks. One would have thought that the resemblance of totalitarian architecture to designs which are supposed to comemorate the victims of totalitarianism would have perturbed even the designers, but one may have underestimated the passive-aggressive intellectual totalitarianism inherent in the nature of the project.

Ultimately such a memorial does not serve to comemorate unique individuals living separate distinct existences, but it rather preserves the idea of sheer number and volume, the sheer dead-weight of countless tons of flesh, just like the heaps of bodies photographed upon the opening of the concentration camps. Nobody here is any more than the number and weight they contribute to the total. That’s not to say that the opposite idea, such as the New York Times’ Portraits of Grief, which tried to present some little element of quirky individuality for every single 9/11 victim, is much better, but that is mainly because the thought process was equally superficial. The assumption that every victim was equally special, equally blandly angelic, led to an absense of real assessment, real weighing, and an ultimate moral homogenization. But those comemorated at the Berlin memorial do not even receive that little amount of recognition.

The mess of this whole thing is maybe not so surprising. Anyone totally convinced of their righteousness, in this case the special moral prerogative supposedly granted to those “bearing witness” (as if just having passively witnessed something is a heroic act of sacrifice), will eventually succumb to the temptation to tyrranize those around them. But there seems to be a particular intellectual folly in this case. It seems to be taken for granted that the boundaries and values of ordinary life were corrupted to the point that they obscured and even perpetuated the Holocaust. But was not the Holocaust itself a great rupture in society? So many today seem to assume that the Weimar Republic practically crowned Hitler itself, even that German social customs are fundamentally favorable to Nazism. Have they forgotten so quickly that Hitler ran for office in 1933 on a pledge to destroy the republic, or that his assumption of dictatorial powers in 1934 was a coup only smirkingly jutified by the “emergency” of the Reichstag fire? Germans of all ages and backgrounds who left the country in 1933, like Einstein and Thomas Mann, clearly did not perceive fundamental continuity between pre-Hitler and Nazi Germany. It was rather the signal for the beginning of barbarism, and few of the rational could mistake the difference. So while those that design Holocaust memorials may see the old concepts of truth and ethics and beauty as being discredited by their supposed complicity with Nazism, they fail to perceive the break in history that occured at that time, or that the abuses and ultimate genocide ensued precisely when the old moderate values and boundaries were discarded in favor of a conscious insanity. And so long as, and to the extent that, the memorials choose to take the legacy of those years as their tradition and foundation, I don’t see there being any hope of burying that legacy.

p.s. The new design for the Freedom Tower isn’t even curvy enough to call phallic. Suffice to say that if a truncated pharaoic obelisk (in the city with the largest Jewish population in the world!) or a kazoo symbolizes freedom, then the design is not totally meaningless.

Untitled (pretentious art snobbery)

The (un)title of Curt’s latest entry reminded me of a thought that crossed my mind as I was wandering around the artistic wasteland that is the fourth floor of the obsessively weird Centre Pompidou last week: untitled works of art almost universally suck. Now, I’m sure some of you e.e. cummings and Jackson Pollock fans will be outraged by this assertion (though it’s telling that Pollock’s most famous painting is known colloquially as Lavender Mist, not Number 1, 1950), but even granting that there are probably exceptions, I think an honest reflection on the various untitled works of art one has experienced must invariably lead to the conclusion that most of them are garbage.1

Why? Well, it’s not necessarily clear why this should be the case. After all, if Don Quijote or Das Wohltemperierte Klavier or La Gioconda had gone untitled, they would still be recognized as great works of art; after all, what we find beautiful about those works are their content, not their names (especially in the case of Don Quijote, which could be loosely, but not entirely inaccurately, translated as Sir Cheesy). That having been said, it seems to me that, given that a title usually reflects the sensibilities of both the author and the work, there may be some common themes to untitled works of art that might explain why they tend to suck.

For one thing, many such works are so abstract as to admit no titular description (both Pollock and certain minimalist works especially come to mind). Still, modernist naïf that I am, it seems to me that the better abstract works evoke something outside themselves instead of being hermetically sealed, self-contained objects. And a title usually gives some insight into whatever it was the author was trying to evoke (e.g. Alexander Calder), even if one ultimately rejects that interpretation. Perhaps more importantly, the sort of work that is so hermetic as to be totally resistant to titling probably isn’t going to strike that evocative chord.

That isn’t to say that there isn’t something to Rothko’s justification that “Silence is so accurate” when explaining why he used generic or non-existent titles for his later works (he feared, or at least claimed to, that more descriptive titles would paralyze the viewer’s imagination).2 This is, of course, a common refrain among modern artists, but in most cases it’s a cop-out from lesser artists who want to conceal the fact that they really just don’t have anything to say.

Which brings me to my second point, which is that, in my limited experience as a writer, coming up with a good title is often significantly harder (at least, relative to the semantic/syntactic “size” of title vs. content) than producing, e.g., a well-written essay (not that either is particularly good, but the title/content of this particular post illustrate this point quite admirably, I think).3 As hinted above, I suspect a goodly number of artists are simply taking the easy way out when leaving their works untitled; and let’s face it: the sort of artist who’s willing to take the easy way out on the most recognizable (rightly or wrongly) aspect of his work probably isn’t going to produce a lot of really earth-shattering art. In other words, while there may be excellent reasons for art to be untitled, those reasons are invoked considerably more often than is really justified.

On what may or may not be an unrelated note (the perceived independence of the following observation from the above probably depends on whether your opinion of the Pompidou’s fourth floor agrees with mine or not), I feel, as someone who’s been in at least five internationally renowned art museums in the last week (the Louvre, the Pompidou, the Orsay, the Marmottan and the Musée National Picasso), qualified to pass the following judgment on art museums: they suck (and yes, that’s three uses of the word “suck” in this post, which might give one the false impression that I had a really bad time in France; I didn’t, of course, it’s just that cynical complaining is much more up my rhetorical alley than enthusiastic paeans).4 Don’t get me wrong, I love art museums, but I’m convinced that, by their very nature, they’re antithetical to their purported purpose. What do I mean by that? Well, it’s actually quite simple: after four hours in your third art museum of the last two days, it’s virtually impossible to appreciate any work of art that you haven’t already seen and dissected on slides or prints (and even in the case of those works you have seen in, say, an art history class, it’s still pretty tough to see the painting itself as opposed to your professor’s description of it). When your feet hurt, your back aches, and you’ve already seen 300 works of art that could legitimately be called masterpieces, it’s very difficult to have any reaction to yet another painting other than “Oh, that’s nice.” The Louvre, of course, is the most egregious example of this, given the size and quality of its collection, but any sufficiently large and well-stocked museum (the Prado, the National Gallery, etc.) is capable of evoking this reaction all by itself, and the smaller museums devoted to a single artist (the Marmottan, the Sorolla museum in Madrid, etc.) or a single movement (the D’Orsay, the Pompidou, the Reina Sofia) are arguably worse, given the relative homogeneity of their collections.

In this context, one really begins to appreciate the presentation of El entierro del Conde de Orgaz in the church of Santo Tomé in Toledo. El Greco’s masterpiece has a room entirely to itself in a church that offers no other great artistic works aside from itself (in particular, its mudéjar tower); this, along with the fact that one has to pay an entrance fee just to see the painting, really forces you to linger over El entierro, to devote some time to looking at it and thinking about it (of course, given that the annex in which it’s housed is usually quite crowded with Japanese tourists, it helps that the painting is pretty large and visible even from a good distance away). Whereas if you wanted to do the same with each significant painting in the Louvre, you’d be there for months (a viable option for those who live in Paris, perhaps, but not for those of us ingrates who like having bacon for breakfast).

1. Of course, most works of art, untitled or not, are garbage, but here I’m restricting my attention to those works of art deemed worthy of appearing in prestigious art museums.
2. I have a print of Rothko’s Orange and Yellow hanging in my living room, so of course I’m going to be somewhat sympathetic to his perspective.
3. Requisite “meta” moment.
4. Since this sentence is already irrevocably tangled by parentheses, I might as well add the further parenthetical observation (except I hate nested parentheses, so it goes in a footnote instead) that my overuse of the word “suck” might also be seen as some sort of sexually-frustrated cry for help, but, at this point, that practically goes without saying.