Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Work with Me Here: a note on the service of aesthetics

In her book, Venus in Exile: the Rejection of Beauty in 20th Century Art, Wendy Steiner, a professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania, attempts to correct what she sees as a systematic degradation of the female body through the iconoclastic aversion of aesthetic beauty that typifies art associated with "Modernism," which she very loosely associates with a 20th century notion of the avant-garde. Steiner begins by mapping out a lineage of Modernism that finds its roots in Kant's Critique of Judgment, in which passionate engagement and search for beauty, whose archetype she notes can be found in the myth of Psyche, is eschewed in favor of disinterested objectification. For Steiner this cold objectification obscures and often, in its preference for mental faculties, does harm to the shape of and use of bodies (particularly female bodies) and physical engagements with the world. Employing Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, or Prometheus Bound as a prescient allegorical critique of Kantian aesthetics, Steiner then goes about tracing the influence of Kant's philosophy from Impressionism, in which the image of the body is obscured through method, on through DADA and Surrealism, which subject the body to the domination of the mind, Cubism, which scientifically dissects the body through primitive juxtaposition and collage, and eventually culminating in Abstract Expressionism and Conceptual Art, where the body itself is presented as a construct or apparition. In the end, Steiner attempts to articulate how strains within versions of Post Modernism, seem to be returning to the importance of bodies, domesticity, and pleasure.

On one hand, I find myself hesitantly agreeing with the critique at the heart of Steiner's Frankenstein allegory, that Kantian disinterest lessons the stakes of critical engagement and could allow us to unwittingly become advocates of monstrosity. But that critique is nothing new. Steiner herself, notes that the concern was raised a century and a half ago by Mary Shelly. And Shelly was not alone. By the mid-to-late 19th century, the same concern was being raised anew by Friedrich Nietzsche, who warned against this flip side of modernity in his essay, "On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life" in which he argued that the object of study should always be in service of shaping physical, relational, and economic conditions in the present and not the subjugation of the artifacts of the past to some unquestioned ideal, or "real" past.

My issue with Steiner's argument has more to do with her reason for reading Kant's aesthetics onto a history of the avant-garde, given that, like Nietzsche, many of the artists associated with such movements outright rejected Platonic divisions of mind and body that serve as a basis for Kant's philosophical and aesthetic system. Not that Steiner is wrong to suggest that such a lineage existed, or that figures like Breton were misogynists, but it seems ambiguous as to what one is supposed to do with such knowledge. Part of this stems from a question of audience. Exactly to whom this critique is addressed – to art historians? to philosophers? to English departments? to artists? In other words, whose value system does she hope to shape or change?

To be honest, I don't have an answer to that. In the most positive sense, I could read this as addressed to art historians like Clement Greenberg, who have effectively repressed practices that allow for the embrace of pleasure, yet her critique seems to rely strictly on her interpretations of the works of art themselves, never questioning the speciousness of many of her readings. Take, for example, her critique of Duchamp on page 53, where she posits that his painting Nude Descending a Staircase "translates the nude into a system of lines and planes in motion, suggesting the fetish of the machine." As she does throughout the book, here Steiner seems to mistake the body in the painting with the body being represented, the implication being that a violation of any strict representation of a body is a violation of the model body. Again, this is not to say that Duchamp was not after a certain mechanization of body (though it has more to do with the mechanization of the painter's hand than the nude model), but to beg the question of why Steiner wants to reinstate some Platonic binary division in which humanity is the antithesis of machine and vice versa, especially given her initial critique of Kantian Idealism (and the ending of Shelley's novel).

And this brings me around then, to another book I've been reading as of late – Nicholas Bourriaud's Relational Aesthetics. In this collection of essays from the late 1990s, Bourriaud does the opposite of Steiner in that he begins his work with questions regarding certain noticeable trends within the art scene of the 1990's, with an emphasis not on the meaning of the artwork but on what an audience does with it and can do with it. Bouriaud looks at how, particularly since Fluxus, the focus of art has shifted from representations of objects and ideals for a mostly passive audience toward an engagement of the economic and social relationships between an artist and an audience. For Bourriaud, this creates many challenges for those writing about and critiquing art, as well as those in charge of curating such pieces in museums and galleries, particularly since many of the pieces like Gonzales-Torres' Stacks, in which stacks of paper or candies are placed in the gallery with the invitation for the audience to take a piece, threaten to disappear in correlation with their effectiveness. For Bourriaud, this loss of aura is not really a new phenomenon. He maps out a brief treatment of art since the Enlightenment in which, at each point, one can see how art was always relational; the only difference in contemporary art is that subjectivity is not taken as an ideal to represent, but in light of the theoretical writing of Felix Guattari, subjectivity is produced through artistic praxis. As such, Bourriaud does not spend much time bemoaning wrong turns or correcting our historical lenses. Instead he opts to focus on tangible relationships in the present art world, particularly how this somewhat new turn in art raises interesting questions about the functions of current institutions such as the museum, the gallery, and art schools that until now have been trapped in aesthetic systems that value representations over relationships.

And that's a good starting point for talking about what we can do with aesthetics. As critics and scholars, do we see ourselves as gatekeepers, the ultimate mediators of legitimate practice? Often, by focusing on, as Steiner does, on delineating legitimate versus illegitimate practice, we limit and prohibit access to the production of subjectivity. However, Bourriaud, by addressing the problems rather as deriving from the institutional distribution of art and culture, suggests another option -- we could instead extend autonomy to the objects of our study, and spend our energy opening up the institutional barriers to those works' engagement with a wider public.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Frank’s Bruised Mandarin

Monday March 9 marked the 7th installment of Karl Saffran and Mike Houser's reading series, Salacious Banter with an excellent reading by newcomer Magdalena Zurawski, Aaron Kunin, and veteran Phillysound poet, CA Conrad – a stop on the Midwest leg of their Frank's Bruised Mandarin Tour (the title is a mash up of their current book titles). Operating out of Karl's loft apartment in Milwaukee's Walker's Point neighborhood, Karl and Mike have been serving up these part Happening/part poetry readings with excellent food and cutting edge verse for nearly a year now. Run on a shoestring budget, Salacious Banter has amazingly garnered not only up-and-coming talent, but also better known poets as Aram Saryoin, Brenda Ijima, Brandon Downing, and old-garde New York Schoolers like John Koethe, and Lewis Warsh. This time around was no exception.

After the crowd had finished devouring the tasty tamales and guacamole the festivities centered on sofas and chairs around the poets. What seemed to mark this reading from the rest was that roughly the first half of the reading was dedicated to fiction, which while not out of the realm of unthinkable in non-mainstream poetry circles, is at least unexpected. For instance, Josh Corey has recently posted on his blog, Cashiers de Corey (here and here), about his reasons for disappointment with work that falls under the labels "fiction" and "novel" – that attention only to plot and character alone is akin to playing with wind-up toys (only without the awareness one is doing so). While even he admits that his gripe is more knee-jerky and reductive, it is more difficult to find prose writers willing to take the kind of chances with form and method that you see in scores of small press poetry magazines today. In fact, compared to poetry there are very few magazines solely dedicated to pushing fiction writing beyond its generic craft, and most magazines that include fiction only choose the most marketable pieces – which inevitably are content driven. One viable alternative is flash fiction or prose poetry, but both of these are more closely related to poetry in both length and linguistic play, so much so that Josh's question still begs to be answered – can there be, these days, a viable experiment in fiction along the lines of Stein, Joyce, or Beckett (and to keep up the Irish theme, maybe Flan O'Brian)?

I bring all this up because both Magdalena and Aaron's prose seems to investigate the very generic constructs of fiction writing that Josh Corey and others (myself included) find clichéd and dull. These novels that the writers were reading from – Magdalena's debut novel The Bruise(Fiction Collective 2) and Aaron's new novel The Mandarin(Fence Books) – are both structured self-reflexively in that the plot of the novel, if one can speak of plot in these books, focuses on the coming into being of the book itself. In fact, the first passage that Magdalena, the first of the readers, performed locates itself in a creative writing workshop with students discussing meta-issues of story formation, and yet the self-reflexivity of setting takes a back seat to the larger linguistic formation of the book. In an aural encounter it is hard not to notice the Steinian recursivity of the sentences in which, nouns in particular, get repeated from one sentence to the next but each time in a different direction or register as if the sentences were folded and stitched together to create a seam, making the rhizomic shape of the narrative hold the sharpness, or color, of its lines, much like the diffuse yet defined mark of a bruise on the surface of the skin. And yet, I would still categorize The Bruise as a novel – there is a "story" at work here, complete with characters, setting, and dialogue, only these are not merely vehicles replete with cushioned harnesses and scripted voices shouting "enjoy your day here at Updike Land!" The sentences bring us into the story almost as participants in the larger discussion of what a bildungs roman represents.

Aaron deftly followed this with a reading from The Mandarin, a novel told almost entirely in dialogue about a novelist writing a novel that puts people to sleep. The irony of the plot becomes far more apparent in performance than even on first read. While in concept the structure of the book sounds somewhat like an MFA student waxing Hemingway-esque, in which one expects efficiency – dialogue pounded out such as to negate the need for elaborate set and character description, a dictum I've more than once been rapped on the knuckles with when experimenting with dialogue. Here, the dialogue services something other than traditional plot and setting, and instead attempts to map the shape of memory. As the characters try to rouse the sleeping heroine from her "novel" boredom, we get the memories of once inhabited locales in what appears over time to be an intersection of different idealizations of Minneapolis. In short, Aaron's focus on the potentiality of dialogue to do more than serve plot, creates a detourè in which we as listener's are asked to participate in set construction, which may be as good a set up for the conceit of the evening personified at its most hilarious in the poetry of CA Conrad.

Conrad, as he prefers to be addressed, read from his new book, The Book of Frank (Chax Press), in which to tell the story of a semi-fictional Frank, he takes everyday objects as points of meditation, though meditations run through many mystic filters – one poem was written during an evening when Conrad ate only blue foods and listened to Bobby Vinton's "Blue Velvet" on a 12-hr loop. In fact, all of Conrad's work involves this type of methodology, whether he's locked himself up ozmosifying the logic of his '45s, or touring the alleys and estranging signage and sounds of cities like his home-town Phili, or even traipsing through Memphis reading all the sites through the hangover sunglasses of the King. And yet, it struck me that despite the crazy approaches to writing that appear to loosen the writer's control over the movement and content of piece, Conrad's poems (and Magdalena's and Aaron's prose) was remarkably easy enough to access. By ignoring oft cited demands of writing workshops and mass circular publishers, all three writers were able to focus attention on something more substantial than a clever turn of plot – the lively and colorful, almost oxymoronic turns of language and the reality we use words to uncover. While "real" fiction often puts me to sleep or drink at a live reading, these authors' negotiations of what function the component parts of "fiction" can serve has had my mind rolling for days. Praise be to the readers and to Karl and Mike and to poetry in living rooms and on sofas instead of behind lecterns and in theatres.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Aura and the Aesthetics of Politics

In his book, The Aesthetic State: a quest in Modern German thought (1989), Josef Chytry attempts to construct a genealogy of German thinking that could account for what the Frankfurt School saw as Germany's infatuation with an aestheticized politic in the period following WWI. He traces this line of thought down from Ancient Greek democracy through Schiller, Schelling, Hegel, Marx, Wagner and on through to Marcuse. His conceit is that an aesthetic appreciation of social relations was not unique to the Fascists but is an underlying function of what he seems to envision as a collective Western effort to scientifically analyze aesthetic responses. This can be seen most clearly in his chapter entitled "Marx: Communism and the Laws of Beauty," in which he dialectically opposes Marx's early interest in Aesthetics with the later writing that adheres more rigidly to a telos, or better yet an eschatology, of Capital. By focusing his attention toward the transitional Marx of the Manifesto, Chytry argues that there are three factors that inform Marx's concept of the "proletariat": 1) Marx's obsession with pre-Socratic Greece, which he claimed, in opposition to Hegel's telos, were more substantive or sensuous and only turned toward the abstract, or spiritual, after Socrates and Plato; 2) Marx's own statements on aesthetics, which seem to reveal that Marx saw aesthetics, as did many of the Young Hegelians, as a vehicle toward radical thought and social organization; and 3)Marx's relationship with various working class movements, like the Paris Commune of 1871. These influences then culminate, according to Chytry, in Marx's re-formulation of history as the progression of mankind's relationship to artisanal praxis and the use-value of his/her labor. In other words, Historical Materialism could be seen as reading forms of beauty into mankind's socio-historical narrative. What seems important to Chytry is to recapture and emphasize this quasi-romantic strain in the early Marx, so that he can rationalize Marx's move in the later years away from a politicized aesthetic (e.g. the form is only a means to making or a tool) and toward an aestheticized politic (e.g. the form itself being the end goal) of the proletarian dictatorship. It seems quite timely that Chytry takes this project up during the final stages of Gorbachev's glasnost, in which much of Marx's legacy is swept under the rug as just another misguided manifestation of the utopian impulses that dominated much of the 19th century.

In that respect, Chytry's project seems a good counterpart to Walter Benjamin's 1936 essay on the politics of photography "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" (or sometimes translated as "technical reproducibility"). Like Chytry, Benjamin sets up a dialectic between the failed utopianism of the later Marx and the core structural principles of historical materialism that could potentially undermine the capitalist enterprise and render theories of the present politics of art (i.e. art produced under "mature" capitalism) that are "completely useless for the purposes of Fascism." To that end, Benjamin constructs a history of fine artistic production that begins with a mythos of "aura" that surrounded religious artifacts. According to Benjamin, the aura of a work of art was significantly tied to it's unique authenticity (it's specific location in time and space) and it's ritual function within a longstanding tradition (in a secular sense this is akin to provenance and the ritual of museum spectatorship). Unlike Chytry, though, Benjamin directly goes after the mythologies that allow for such a tradition to seem natural. In fact, art by definition can never be natural or authentic but produced by particular techniques that have always been reproducible. What, for Benjamin is profoundly different, post-1900 (cf. the invention of devices such as the lithograph, daguerreotype, and phonograph) is that the human labor expended in re-producing a work of art has been abstracted even further by the use of modern machinery, thus eliminating the basis for a concept of aura – the uniqueness of the bourgeois individual that subsumes the labor of a work's creation. The political ramification of this move is not lost on Benjamin who then takes this rupture within the tradition to posit a thesis that seems counterintuitive in a vulgar Marxist teleology: that the crisis of authenticity brought about by mechanical reproduction might actually undo one of the last vestiges of Socratic/Platonic idealism – the mind/body split. In effect, the ability of machines to recreate artifacts that cause aesthetic reactions in "individuals" raises a serious challenge to centrality/importance of the human species as inherently special or purposive. And this, for Benjamin, is vital because if we cannot talk about nature, aura, etc, then we can only talk about reproducible technique and the possible uses of such techne to change social relations (i.e. the politics of art). Of thecourse that also makes the obverse true – that we can no longer discuss with any validity any true or authentic politic that must evidence itself in the inherent form of all activity, or what he called the "aesthetic state" at work in the fascism of Hitler and Mussalini, and in 1936 what he began to see at work in Moscow too.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Getting It Right

In his treatise on the necessity of liberal education, Culture and Anarchy, Matthew Arnold argues for a curriculum which establishes a clear line of (Western) tradition handed down from the Greeks and Romans as a defense against what he saw as a devolution or a descent into barbarism – anarchy in the UK. When I was 16, I listened to the Sex Pistols and tagged public property with Sharpies and canned paint and profanity and then proceeded to sniff the excesses of our vandalism. Matthew Arnold was writing to convince people to hate us and hang with him because we were trash talking the sexual fidelity of his mother in bathroom stalls. Matthew Arnold wrote his book about Plato and Aristotle and Longinus and Horace. We wrote Shit on Horace and Longinus and Aristotle and Plato, mostly because we knew that they were just men repeating the words of other men. Plato was an ancient greek dude who wrote about other greek dudes who overheard the activities of So-crates – a possible ancient greek dude, much like Jesus is a possible ancient Jewish dude – in order to teach other ancient greek dudes to not end up like us, writing shit on Horace and Longinus and Aristotle and Plato. Plato's Symposium is a morality play that looks like a fictional gossip column. A narrator is asked to tell a story told to him about how the god, I mean the man, Socrates tricked the Aristocrats into kissing the ass of the gods, when he knew full well that the gods were only a metaphor of human attempts to escape mortality. Accordingly, the story is told so that the Aristocrats (and presumably Plato's audience would find this "sensible") went on and on one-upping each other in praising the nobility and qualities of love until Socrates steps in and starts asking questions to which he already knows the answer. HA! HA! So much for believing in the abundance of love. According to Socrates, by the way of some narrator by the way of Plato (so according to Plato?), logic and deduction are the key – critical distance – to becoming aware of the trace of love in one's soul, so the body and the soul are distinctly separate. And we read Plato and we called Breton a Platonist and the Platonism scholars said we were being irrational and so we shit on the Symposium. And the Aristotelians thought us too barbaric and suggested we consult Aristotle, and so we read the Poetics and noted the importance of mimesis, of keeping our ideas as close to the archetype. And we handed out flyers saying, Andy Warhol is an Aristotelian, but the Aristotelian scholars said we were vulgar to compare mimesis to a Xerox, and so we shit on the poetics. And the followers of Longinus suggested we read On the Sublime because we needed some restraint. And so we read that great writing is about great conceptions, about lifting the reader out of the ordinary through a refined elegance and simplicity. And so we called into radio shows proclaiming Kenneth Goldsmith as the second coming of Longinus. And the scholars of Longinus freaked and expelled us for plagiarism. And so we wiped our asses with Longinus's text and mailed it with our expulsion appeals. And the faculty recommended we read Horace, and so we read the Ars Poetica. And we read how ornament needs to be cut down such that a reader need be brought in almost in medias res. And we began proclaiming Kurt Vonnegut in the tradition of Horace, but the scholars of fine verse suggested we were comparing tigers and lambs, which showed us to be vulgar plebeians incapable of understanding how the world works, and they sent us to work at the water treatment facility, where we mimeographed copies of journal we titled Arse Poetica, a compendium of butts and farts in the tradition of Horace. And we took our sharpies and we tagged everything we were told was beautiful with words like "shit" and "fuck," and we shat on Matthew Arnold and enjoyed ourselves immensely.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

A Gift Outright

In true honor and avant-respect to the new administration, Kenny G (otherwise known as Kenneth Goldsmith) has posted 50 remixes of Elizabeth Alexander's Innaugural Poem over at Harriet, the blog for The Poetry Foundation. Check it out.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

“Some Sort of Time Machine”

Let me begin with a caveat, Neutral Milk Hotel's second full-length album, In the Aeroplane over the Sea, embodies nearly every aesthetic I've grown disappointed in with American pop music – the self-absorbed, first-person narrator who often speaks in stock sentimentalities about adolescent love, an unblinking nostalgia for antiquity, and a bald-faced Romanticism and mythos on par with worst Coleridge lyric. The very thought that Jeff Mangum says he wrote the entire album in some fitful wake from the nightmares he encountered after having read a copy of Anne Frank's, The Diary of a Young Girl, makes me want to roll my eyes so far back they could see out my asshole, and yet…

And yet, ten years after its initial release, Aeroplane, is consistently at the top of my "recently played" I-tunes list. Why? Because the album, not in spite of the above-mentioned flaws but because of them, questions the very reasons for which I have erected aesthetic scaffolds in the first place. In the Aeroplane may be personal, but it is no biography. This is a free-associative romp of images, shards really, of historical imagination, on par with the best sections of Andre Breton's Nadja – a fractured dream that sounds eerily like what Stephen Dedalus, the protagonist of Ulysses, called the nightmare of history. In short, Mangum is encountering past the way a child encounters the present – leaping from parents impaling each other with cutlery to the sacramental handling of rattlesnakes without even batting an eye. Thus there is no need for editorial restraint because everything, even the clichéd romantic gestures, is shrouded in strangeness.

In one sense this strangeness is achieved lyrically through Mangum's attention to the physicality of memory when he addresses his imaginary Frank saying, "now how I remember you/ how I would push my fingers through your mouth/ to make those muscles move." Later he places himself in the shoes of both her adolescent love and his own adolescence, ignoring overt descriptions of sex that come with previous experience and bookishness, and instead seeing sex in everything, where even "semen stains the mountaintops" and where the act in all its mystery becomes violent and risky, where gentle touch transforms into "fingers through the notches of your spine."

But that's just the beginning. The real inventiveness of the album is in the music, the presentation, which comes across something like Harry Smith's catalogue of homemade folk music history on an acid trip. Even though the album was recorded on somewhat of a shoestring budget (especially compared to something like Bruce Springsteen's homage to Pete Seeger, We Shall Overcome [2005]), Mangum has employed a wide range of folk instrumentation – banjos, bagpipes, accordions, army horns, and even singing saws – that could resonate with nearly every decade of 20th century folk music. There are shards of funeral marches, carnival parades, hoedowns, mid-sixties psychodelia, all set to Mangum's scowling voice that one reviewer, punning on a lyric from the title track, likened to "a dead dog howl" that just keeps barking more and more frantically.

And it keeps barking after all these ten years. Barking that history is an untamed beast. That fragmentation can be beautiful in its violence. That our person is the only defense we have against the ruthless systems of power and money that keep pounding down the metaphor of Anne Frank with the countless other voices into the mass graves of collateral damage. Maybe more of us could ask like Mangum, "will she remember me 50 years later/ I wished I could save her in some sort of time machine." His album might just be a good start.