Wednesday, 7 March 2007

On the autonomy of art.

It’s terrifying to think my drunken ramblings might be held up against me one day. “The geckos are coming! We’re all doomed! We might as well stay in and shag our grandmothers!” I said what? When? “Last night, Dad. Don’t you remember?”
A comment that came in a few days back has sent me off reading a bunch of essays by the great twentieth century art critic Clement Greenberg. I’m quite fond of the old geezer and today I will offer a few words on matters of aesthetic interest as an antidote to all the foolish blather of the last week about the Evil Gecko Emperor. Things appear to have gone quiet on the battle front anyway.

It started with my post of 21 feb In thrall to the cinematic principle. Rod McKie remarked upon it on the Comics Journal board where he presumed I was demanding autonomy for comics as an art.
Rod wrote:" It seems like such an attempt to make comic art autonomous... that it seeks to exclude the involvement of the reader... I personally think autonomy is overrated and thanks to Clement Greenberg's later drunken, rambling, confessions that he championed Clive Bell's ideas simply 'for copy', I think it is somewhat discredited."

I had my say on 22 feb in BIG HANDS & little geezers. Rod saw that and came back in the comments box on 3 march in a way that demands a decent reply.
"Hi Eddie, I may have garbled what I was getting at (wouldn't be the first time). I was thinking of Clive Bell and the elite, and privileged, little Bloomsbury Group's insistence on the autonomy of painting, ridding it of all techniques of photography and cinema and the foregrounding instead of the means of production, of the technique (always over substance),
so that the painterly qualities of a painting, are all that matters and any discussion of the work should focus only on its self-referential qualities.
The reason the foregrounding of technique disquiets me is that Clement Greenberg used Bell's arguments to champion Abstract Expressionism and he was undoubtedly a tool of the CIA's promotion of Abstract Expressionism, during the Cold War.
It was not, as he was later to admit, something he believed in. He later excused himself by saying that nobody should have taken him seriously and that he was 'only making copy'. But as a highly influential art critic he destroyed a lot of careers.
Whilst I wouldn't argue about rules being necessary, I would object to a definition that strips comics of all outside references; if it were ever possible, and subjects comics to nothing but self-referential signifiers. “


Firstly, I like to think that drunken ramblings are inadmissible as evidence. In the same way that Voltaire's supposed recanting of his atheism on his deathbed must be inadmissible. It’s one of those things that if it didn’t happen somebody would have said that it did anyway. For the sake of argument let’s say that he wrote it in an essay. In that case it would simply be a new text in opposition to his older ones. Once an idea has gone out into the world, gotten mixed up with other stuff and established its own sphere of influence, you can’t just delete it by saying you’ve changed your mind.

I detect in your words a tendency to join the legion of 'Clembashers’ "THOSE WHO ATTACK Greenberg broadly first get him wrong and then flog their own misunderstanding". (Darby Bannard). The reach and depth of his work can be measured by reading three compilations of his talks and/or writings: Art and Culture (1961), Clement Greenberg: the Collected Essays and Criticism (1986-93) and Homemade Esthetics (1999). Any serious attempt at a just estimation of his place in the history of art and art criticism will need to focus on these books." (Peter Harris).

Perhaps we are nostalgic for a time when it was okay to believe in absolutes. Somebody else’s ideas could be seen as objects taking up all the space, that need to be pushed aside so we can get ours in. I personally have no problem with embracing a dozen mutually exclusive ideas in one lunch time. Like my rules for instance. If somebody else has a bunch of rules that helps them get their work done then they’re good rules. They are abstractions. There is no reason for somebody to elimimate one of mine in order to have a different idea of their own.
There exist many beautiful ideas that the world no longer has any practical use for, such as the ancient Greeks' belief that there was a special god who patronized wine, or the seventeenth century idea that each key in musical harmony represented a different ‘affect’, a state of mind and spirit and emotion. The autonomy of art is one of those beautiful ideas, and one that was espoused by Greenberg:
"What I'm getting at, in a way I hope isn't so roundabout, is the fact that art and the history of art can be approached and discussed illuminatingly all by themselves, as though taking place in an area of experience that's autonomous, a place that doesn't have to be connected with any other area of experience in order to have sense made of it."
His 1961 monograph on Hans Hofmann is a lovely example of this kind of writing. In 5,700 words he writes about nothing that is not contained on the surfaces of the paintings or on those of the works of earlier or later artists. It is a pleaure to read, and I am mystified as to why you feel it necessary to spoil such a pleasure for me, as though the existence of my aesthetic enjoyment could have any negative effect on yours which is taking place elsewhere, which attitude I deduce from the triumph you feel in reading that it ('autonomy' in art) is 'discredited'

But note this:
"Greenberg held that speculation about "content" in art was idle, that in successful art content was bound up inextricably with form and that form could essentially be pointed to and described in individual works of art but couldn't be interpreted or explicated as content in any meaningful way. This led to a widespread assumption that he didn't believe in content (which he quite rightly denied)" (Terry Fenton)

I confess I can’t completely figure out your point of view, since I encounter a few old school reactionaries in my links hither and yon, but you do use that very postmodern phrase in your last line 'self-referential signifiers'. The site I've been linking to above has quite a collection of Greenberg's writings. There's an essay on postmodernism in which Clem’s befuddlement and discomfort is plain to see. He can’t quite figure out how it can be the next thing. He doesn’t realize yet that it means the end of ‘next things’, and of all the other notions by which poor old Clem set his clock, such as the idea of the motor of art history being driven by individual geniuses passing a baton one to the next; the notion that art is an ongoing narrative.

We do things differently now and thus we can’t talk about American Abstract Expressionism without bringing the CIA into it:
UNPOPULAR FRONT: American art and the Cold War. by LOUIS MENAND
My favourite passage of that article you linked to is this, which makes a peace between the old and new ways of interpreting:
"Still, no work reduces to a single context. When you stand before Pollock’s “Lavender Mist,” you do not think about “artistic free enterprise” or the C.I.A. or the cultural politics of Partisan Review. You think about how a painter could have taken all he had experienced across a creative threshold that no one had crossed before, and produced this particular thing. The painting’s importance for a certain strand of Cold War cultural politics is part of the story of how it got to us, a generation or more later, and that history is worth knowing, because bits and pieces of it—the existentialist encounter, the “American” indifference to painterly decorum—still cling to it. After all, other ways of understanding Abstract Expressionist paintings were once possible, for images are highly malleable (one of the reasons they make poor instruments for propaganda). It might easily have been argued that Abstract Expressionist works are hostile to the spirit of liberal democracy, that they reflect a totalitarian aesthetics—monumental, peremptory constructions that make us feel our insignificance."

IN The Fate of the Artist I opine that the scholarship of an art becomes as much a part of art history as the art it interprets. One of my favorite books is Adolf Furtwangler's colossal 1891(?) tome in which he recreates the history of ancient Greek Sculpture, bringing the personalities of the artists vividly back to life through an analysis of the assorted rubble that we have at our disposal, joining this to that with extraordinary confidence, using speculative attributions as the basis for other speculative attributions. Virtually all of it is now dismissed, but I love to go back and read passages from it. (I spent a couple of weeks with it and photocopied a great deal). Aesthetically it is a treasure. There was a moment in 1891 when the history of Greek Sculpture went just so. Today it goes differently. Now we prefer to admit a lack of knowledge than to make things up. Our antique galleries are full of broken things in preference to old things mended by modern hands. Times change. We dismiss fictitious histories while acknowledging that all history is more or less fictive.

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8 Comments:

Blogger Christopher Moonlight said...

Eddie, I'm so glad to see how much you love writing about this stuff, but I have to say; Your style works for you, because you are you. While I think it can be imitated, I can't imagine anyone making it work quite the way you do. I can do a pretty good Scottish accent (ask me to do it for you sometime) from an American point of view, but you would see right through it. Of course, I still enjoy doing it anyway. Ultimately, it's the soul of the person that the art comes out of, not the technique. That's incidental. If you know the narrative in your heart, then all of those rules that you seek to shed off, tend to sneak themselves in without you noticing. So people use movie terms to describe them. So what? Does that really make comics a derivative of movies, if you use those terms? I'm talking about you, not other "artist." Does a rose by any other name, smell just as sweet? Now, I have not been drinking, but I am on some pretty heavy medication from my doctor, due to being sick with bronchitis for a month. Does that count?

7 March 2007 3:14:00 am GMT-5  
Blogger Steve said...

Damn, I have a lot to say here and little time. I'll try and place a holder of my thoughts. I did a bit of reading on Herge last year and he was very much influenced by the then burgeoning cinematic art, stating that he considered his "stories as movies. No narration, no descriptions, emphasis is given to images." I know Moore's talked somewhere of cinematic technique, and we can see it in the scripts you're showing, us, which also allow us through your generosity to see your artistic input and recapturing of the scene's given intent.

And yet again you've given me an insight into art. I've never seen Pollock like that before. Well most art. I was brought up with the answer "because they can" to the question "why do they do that", it's what the school of hard knocks passes on, and I never really got the idea of asking "why can they?" because you end up in with a clip round the ear or a smack in the mouth.

I noticed you brought Fate of the Artist up as well. I have to say I'm still struggling with that. It's bloody good painting if that helps, and the shorts are fabulous, but I think I need a lot longer to digest it thematically. I did see a couple of things in The Guardian at the weekend that I wanted to point out to you, um, here's an article on the threat to literature from mediocrity and proliferation, by Milan Kundera, um, there's a few things I found of interest, I mean he's got Hegel as saying 'The content of lyric poetry is the poet himself; he gives voice to his inner world so as to stir in his audience the feelings, the states of mind he experiences. And even if the poet treats "objective" themes, external to his own life, "the great lyric poet will very quickly move away from them and end up drawing the portrait of himself"

Something Mr Moonlight above is also making, and I figured it was redolent of your work somewhat given the autobiographical quality of the Alec stuff. Obviously I haven't the framework established to trap you inside the Wicker Man of the lyrical poet...

and anyway, the article went further, 'Music and poetry, Hegel says, have an advantage over painting: lyricism'. Again this kind of made me think of comics, where they would fit in with lyricism, since sometimes there are works that have a lyrical quality, Chunky Rice springs to mind, and there was another that I've forgotten now from last year or the year before about two old lovers at a lake I think... Now I know I'm grabbing from other fields and we're not supposed to do that, but it stirs the brain into thought if nothing less.

But what I think is relevant here is this passage:

"Delacroix, for his famous painting Liberty Leading the People, copied the setting from the curtain of pre-interpretation: a young woman on a barricade, her stern face, her naked breast inciting fear; at her side, an oaf with a pistol. Little as I care for this picture, it would be absurd to exclude it from what we call great painting.

But a novel that glorifies such conventional poses as these, such hackneyed symbols, does exclude itself from the history of the novel. For it is by tearing through the curtain of pre-interpretation that Cervantes set the new art going; his destructive act echoes and extends to every novel worthy of the name; it is the identifying sign of the art of the novel."

I think you're demanding (asking?) for something similar: Be more than movies, tear through the curtains of those pre-interpretations of tracking shots and so on. I'd guess this was what Dave was saying in the comments, but I'm wary of misrepresenting anyone: "The entire drama of a given situation must be contained within each page of the sequence of that situation." Um, what I'm grappling with that meaning is that the work will dictate, the form will dictate, the artist will dictate, again disregarding any pre-interpretations implied by the script if they don't suit the work.

God I'm out of my depth here.

What made me think of Fate of the Artist in that article was this:

"Artists' fame is the most monstrous of all, for it implies the idea of immortality. And that is a diabolical snare, because the grotesquely megalomaniac ambition to survive one's death is inseparably bound to the artist's probity."

I couldn't help but compare that to the events of Fate, in which one reading suggesting itself is that you've attempted to kill the immortal art in favour of the mortal life. I mean, using that terminology it's like you've tripped the diabolical snare from out of harm's way.

Of course the article goes on, and one line that seemed to suggest itself more than any other to your work was "This is the novelist's curse: his honesty is bound to the vile stake of his megalomania." Especially with your Egomania magazine, I think. God, sorry if this isn't the place to grapple with all of this, it's a bit churlish to just turn up and throw this at you from out of nowhere, and I feel a bit like that scene in Annie Hall where he drags, um was it really Marshall McLuhan in to defend his reading of McLuhan's work.

Anyway, the article neatly touched on that too:
the poet Josef Kainar ... told this anecdote:

A little boy takes his blind grandmother for a walk. They are strolling down a street and from time to time the little boy says, "Grandma watch out - a root!" Thinking she is on a forest trail, the old woman keeps jumping. Passers-by scold the little boy: "Son, you're treating your grandmother so badly!" And the little boy says: "She's my grandma! I'll treat her any way I want!" And Kainar finishes, "That's me, that's how I am about my poetry."

The article goes on, touching this idea of transformation...

"In anguish I imagine a time when art shall cease to seek out the never-said and will go docilely back into the service of the collective life that requires it to render repetition beautiful and help the individual merge, at peace and with joy, into the uniformity of being."

But really, I've squeezed the article of all it's juice and only kept those seeds that germinated for me. The whole thing is a beauty and demands a read. I think you're on the same page as Kundera, and that Furtwangler, who sounds a star and should be in the next League of Extraordinary Gentleman. I mean here I am, mid thrities and staggered to learn that the Greek sculptures were painted back in the day. How could they hide that from you all those years? That one just felt wrong, as if some committee had decided they liked them white so they weren't going to let on they'd ever been painted, potentially that they wouldn't even think of the very possibility. Still, you up on Mount Olympus, you can see further than us clods down on the Earth. That's how you knew the geckos had taken Tokyo afore everyone else.

Damn, there was more I wanted to say on this, but I have to go. I had wanted to make a point about Schuster and Siegel's Superman based on that article, since I've just discovered it and it is a thing of beauty. Kundera discusses Cervantes, and the fact that an anonymous writer had written a sequel to Don Quixote whilst Cervantes was writing the second volume: "Don Quixote was born for me alone, and I for him. He knew about action, I about writing. He and I are simply one single entity." It made me realise the loss of those two men, who, from what I read, felt a similar way about Superman. He knew about action, they knew about comics.

Anyways, I really have to leave it there. Hope I haven't stifled the life out of everyone. And I cannot believe anyone could comment here three sheets to the wind with that damn spam protecting guess the word device. The sober test is how I shall refer to it from now on.

7 March 2007 6:07:00 am GMT-5  
Anonymous John C said...

I've been a Clembasher myself at times but I have a nice OU film on tape somewhere with him talking at length about abstraction and art in the 50s. My main beef has been his championing abstraction against any form of realistic representation partly as a reaction against the Nazi art ideal and the subsequent Socialist Realism of Stalin, Mao and co. That's the sole reason the CIA liked it and promoted it, it was "non-Commie art", they didn't care what it looked like.

I think I've read that Pop Art gave Greenberg the vapours when it appeared, realism was back on the agenda again!

7 March 2007 7:28:00 am GMT-5  
Blogger spacedlaw said...

Am all for creating stories instead of doubtful history but it could be the excellent Autralian wine speaking...
N.

7 March 2007 7:33:00 am GMT-5  
Anonymous John C said...

Re: Kundera. Can't help but see him as a frightful snob, I'm afraid. He's another one desperate for there to be a single conversation about art going on. I enjoy reading Flaubert and I also enjoy reading Robert E Howard; so sue me, Milan. I doubt Kundera has much time for genre fiction of any sort, never mind (imagine him choking as you say the words) comic books.

7 March 2007 7:41:00 am GMT-5  
Blogger Eddie Campbell said...

couple of days later..

thanks for the long write, Steve. I took in the Kundera article. Still digesting it. hard work, what? Feels like it's bits and pieces pulled out of the book rather than one long extract. i may say a word on the main page when I figure out what that word could be.

one thing occurs to me. Flaubert, Proust, Faulkner, Tolstoy... there isn't enough time in the world for a person to read the canon of literature. Such a thing is surely going to be left more and more to the specialist.

i think my way of doing things in Fate doesn't take up half as much of a person's time to read it all. Maybe that is the thing that makes the 'graphic novel' most particularly the literature of our times. That only just occurred to me while reading the Kundera piece. We really need to be taking in information in a more condensed form. he even seemed to getting at that himself.

eddie

9 March 2007 8:18:00 am GMT-5  
Blogger Jack Ruttan said...

Trouble with the web, is that stuff you wrote on it (say, comments on other people's blogs), tends to hang around forever.

I'm at least circumspect enough to try not to write anything actionable.

9 March 2007 8:29:00 am GMT-5  
Blogger Jack Ruttan said...

Oh yeah. I still like old museums, because they tell you so much about the culture that produced them.

Same goes for old books. Novels, but also books on science, history, etc. It's always interesting how things "date," but while you're in the middle of an age, you can't always see it in the way the perspective of it being in the past does (an interesting exercise to try).

9 March 2007 8:39:00 am GMT-5  

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