Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Rephotographs and Counterlife

The New Yorker, October 15, 2007

Yes, yes, it's a really old number. Reading Peter Schjeldahl's review of Richard Prince at the Guggenheim reminds me of my own reaction to the retrospective of this American appropriations artist. Of Prince's rephotograph of a Garry Gross photograph, of a naked Brooke Shields, aged ten, her prepubescent body oiled and face given womanly make-up, Schjeldahl writes:

The Guggenheim's chief curator, Nancy Spector--who, working closely with the artist, has installed the show with excellent rhythm and clarity--hastens, in an essay in the catalogue, to defend the work as social criticism, "a portrait of desperation" exposing the American pursuit of fame at any cost. But she thereby fails to credit (if that's the word) Prince's omnivorous connoisseurship of kink, as in paintings (which have been selling for millions at aunctions) from covers of semi-smutty romance novels featuring nurses. He doesn't diagnose decadence. He swims in it.

I too thought that the exhibition notes tried too hard to make Prince socially respectable. My reaction differed from Schjeldahl's in that I thought I detected gender and sexual anxieties in the works, and not just luxurious decadence.

I like how Schjeldahl describes the effect on him of the big glossy rephotographs:

His gorgeous prints of the cowboy photographs in Marlboro ads, a stock-in-trade since 1980, stick us with the fact that those pictures are beautiful. Any opinions we may have about advertising, cigarettes, and the West founder in our visual bliss. And I remember laughing with amazed delight when I first saw some of the "Gangs," from the mid-eighties--big sheets of rephotographed gridded photos, such as amateur shots from motorcycle magazines for which guys posed their girlfriends, lasciviously, with their choppers; or of big waves from surfer publications, which emit formulaic, subcultural rapture. If I liked one of those pictures, it occurred to me, I would be fated to like them all, insatiably; and for a moment, still, at the Guggenheim I can feel locked into their wavelengths of avidity.

Here is a critic who not only describes responsively the visual pleasure of these works, but also judges the moral quality of this pleasure ("their wavelengths of avidity"). Both description and judgment are crucial, interdependent critical tasks.


Another critic, this one of literature, I have come to expect to do the same, describing accurately and judging judiciously, is James Wood. His review of Roth's Exit Ghost makes me want to read the novel. Near the end of the review, Wood explains how Roth manages to be postmodernist without (in the words of Nathan Zuckerman, Roth's protagonist-writer in the book) "sacrificing the factuality of time and place to surreal fakery or magic-realist gimmickry." Wood concludes:

Fiction, for Roth, is not what Plato thought mimesis was: an imitation of an imitation. Fiction is a rival life, a "counterlife," to use the title of one of Roth's greatest novels, and this is why his work has managed so brilliantly the paradox of being at once playfully artful and seriously real. In "The Ghost Writer," Nathan Zuckerman, the young author, laments, "If only I could invent as presumptuously as real life!" . . . In "Exit Ghost," Zuckerman bewails hs sexual impotence: "Why must strength's abatement be so quick and cruel? Oh, to wish what is into what is not, other than on the page!" In the earlier novel, fiction yearns to keep pace with the scandal and presumptuousness and fictionality of life; in the later novel, life years for the scandalous freedom and fantasy of fiction. But for Roth there is no contradiction between the two positions. In both cases, the urge to create fiction--the urge to wish what is into what is not--is really just the urge to live more, to extend life, to bring back life, as Zuckerman yearns for the rejuvenation of his body. And both the urge to create fiction and the urge to extend life belong to the magical fantasy of endlessness.

What is true of fiction is also true of poetry (Plato was talking about the poets, actually). The road to postmodernism lies through hyper-realism.

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