Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Monstrosity is the Untruth

TLS October 25 2013

from Jack Flam's review of T. J. Clark's Picasso and Truth: From Cubism to Guernica:

Although Clark takes a rather long and circuitous route to conclude that Picasso is a monist whose art is amoral--not from indifference, but from a reality principle (the world itself being amoral)--his discussion of parallels between Nietzsche and Picasso contributes to a better understanding of Picasso's uniqueness as a thinker as well as a painter. It also provides an implicit rebuke to Jung's expectation that great art be "good" as well as beautiful. Following Nietzsche, Clark maintains that the way monstrosity collapses normal terms of identity and difference can be a substitute for truth: "Monstrosity is the Untruth--the strangeness and extremity--inherent in everyday life".

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Arthur Danto's "The Transfiguration of the Commonplace"

In this work of philosophy, Danto wishes to define art, and to show why contemporary art, having attained self-consciousness, is asking the same questions as philosophy. His approach throughout the book is to compare artworks with what he calls mere real things, when both are indiscernibly alike. The two classes of things, as he argues, belong to different ontological realms, hence, the title of his book. The artist performs a transfiguration of the commonplace when he makes of his materials a work of art. Danto has been criticized for his belief in duality, underlined by the Christian or Catholic figure of transfiguration, and reiterated throughout the book in his references to the body and the soul. I am not sure if the two ontological realms are as separate as his tropes imply, for his argument proceeds by making nice distinctions between, first, a representation and an object, and, then, between a representation and an artistic representation. If the categories are finally different, they are also procedurally nested in one another.

Very roughly, if I understand him rightly, the difference between a representation and an object is that the former is intended. The difference between a representation and an artistic representation is that the latter is artistically intended, meaning, the artist, with his knowledge of the artworld and art history, intends to make a work of art. So Andy Warhol's Brillo Box is a different thing from the Brillo box in the supermarket even though they look indiscernibly the same. In order for the viewer to grasp the artistic intention behind the art work, the viewer must know or come to understand the meanings that the artist infused into the work. The structure of the artwork is thus very close to the structure of a metaphor.

So the artwork is constituted as a transfigurative representation rather than a representation tout court, and I think this is true of artworks, when representations, in general, whether this is achieved self-consciously, as in the arch work I have been discussing, or naively, when the artist simply happens to vest his subject with surprising yet penetrating attributes. To understand the artwork is to grasp the metaphor that is, I think, always there. (172)

Danto draws out many implications from the last statement, one of which has to do with the limits of art criticism:

The first is that if the structure of artworks is, or is very close to the structure of metaphors, then no paraphrase or summary of the artwork can engage the participatory mind in at all the ways that it can; and no critical account of the internal metaphor of the work can substitute for the work inasmuch as the description of a metaphor simply does not have the power of the metaphor it describes, just as a description of a cry of anguish does not activate the same response as the cry of anguish itself. (173)

The task of art criticism is not only to interpret the metaphor but to provide the viewer with the necessary information to respond to the artwork, information lost to time or unknown due to place.

Criticism then, which consists in interpreting metaphor in this extended sense, cannot be intended as a substitute for the work. Its function rather is to equip the reader or viewer with the information needed to respond to the work's power which, after all, can be lost as concepts change or be inaccessible because of the outward difficulties of the work, which the received cultural equipment is insufficient to accommodate. It is not just, as is so often said, that metaphors go stale; they go dead in a way that sometimes require scholarly resurrection. And it is the great value of such disciplines as the history of art and literature to make such works approachable again. (174)

The argument about art leads Danto to expound a view about man.

My view, in brief, is an expansion of the Peircian thesis that "the man is the sum total of his language, because man is a sign. . . . it is not merely what a man represents, but is the way in which he represents it, which has to be invoked to explain the structures of his mind. This way of representing whatever he does represent is what I have in mind by style. If a man is a system of representations, his style is the style of these. The style of a man is, to use the beautiful thought of Schopenhauer, "the physiognomy of the soul."

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Frank Ching's "Ancestors"

It is a curious thing to me that I am non-curious about my ancestors. I read to discover literary ancestors--predecessors and mentors--who can give me help. I cannot imagine spending years of my life, as Frank Ching did, researching actual ancestors, as if they have anything to do with me but for the accident of blood. Would I feel different if I discover how illustrious my ancestors are, like Ching's list of top court officials, brilliant scholars, famous poets, noted failures, and even a notorious traitor?

Though illustrious, their lives in dynastic China followed the same basic pattern, which makes for dull reading. These men (for only scholar-class men had their lives recorded in government, city or clan histories) studied throughout their teens and twenties, and sometimes thirties and forties, for the civil-service examinations. When they passed them, they were posted to various government positions throughout the empire to carry out their various duties and effect their various reforms. The pattern was so unremittingly set that when one ancestor spurned the examinations in favor of a life of poetic solitude, he became a hero in this reader's eyes.

The founder of the clan was a poet. Qin Guan was one of the famous four disciples of the Sung Dynasty poet Su Dongbo. The story of how they met is charming. Hearing that the master poet was passing through Yangzhou, Qin Guan was sure that he would travel to Daming Monastery and visit Pingshan Hall, erected by Su's late mentor. To arouse Su's curiosity, Qin Guan wrote a poem in Su's style on a wall of Pingshan Hall. The famous poet recognized the homage and subsequently asked to meet the writer. The rest, as they say, is history. I wish there were more stories like this one in Ching's book, stories that reveal a cunning mind and a spirit of self-promotion. Instead, the ancestors are dug up from the graves of history and embalmed again in reverence.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Two Queer French Films

Dans la maison (In the House), 2012, directed by François Ozon, is many things. It is a story about a cynical teacher and a talented student. It is also a study of the sexual frustration of middle-class women, the art gallery owner married to the teacher, and the housewife married to a corporate hick. At the heart of the film is the voyeur in everyone of us, the student (compelling Ernst Umhauer) who wants to see what a perfect family looks like, the teacher (Fabrice Luchini), and his wife (Kristin Scott Thomas). It is an homage to Teorema by Pier Paolo Pasolini, in which a stranger enters a home and seduces everyone in it, maid, son, mother, daughter, and father. And, most profoundly, the film is an allegory for the creative process. The fact that all these levels cannot be separated from one another easily as the film moves towards its unexpected ending is a testament to the skill and vision of the director. GH and I watched it last weekend, and we still felt its impact last night as we watched another French gayish movie.

Directed by Zabou Breitman, L'homme de sa vie (The Man of My Life), 2006, is a lesser film, but is nevertheless lifted above the average by its beautiful cinematography and the acting of its leads. Charles Berling plays Hugo, the gay man who walks into the life of married man Frédéric, who is played by Bernard Campan. The chemistry between the men was understated but powerful. Frédéric is attracted to the unconventional and articulate intellect in Hugo, and its promise of freedom and ecstasy. Hugo, whose attraction grows more slowly, is drawn to Frédéric's open sincerity, so different from his own dogmatic stance against marriage and relationships. Léa Drucker is wonderful as Frédéric's wife, realizing and then watching with anguish her husband falling in love with another. The minor characters were less well-integrated into the film than they could have been. The editing was somewhat choppy, and the surrealistic scenes were cheesy. The film is, however, persuasive in showing how a man, who has always taken his heterosexuality for granted, learns that he is capable of some other feeling.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Reading at Hunter College

Alison Park invited me to read to her Asian American Studies class at Hunter College last Wednesday. The class consisted of about 20 students, half of which were Asian American. There were a few more women than men. The students were taking the class to fulfill the requirement for pluralism in their studies, so not everyone there was an English major. In fact, someone there majored in Computer Science. They were a little quiet and shy at the beginning but warmed up soon.

I read them some family and New York poems from Equal to the Earth, stopped for questions, and then read from The Pillow Book as a lead-in to Sei Shonagon and her use of the list form. The students wrote their own list for "Things That Sound Beautiful," a topic suggested by the class. After they wrote down some ideas, I asked them to write them out again, this time aiming to elaborate, organize, paragraph, and delete. They came up with some great descriptions. I remember, in particular, wind chimes, a minor chord on a violin and the laughter of friends. I really enjoyed my time with them.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

3 Poems in Axon

All three poems have epigraphs from Lee Tzu Pheng. Alvin Pang was the Consulting Editor for this issue of the Australian journal Axon

Monday, November 11, 2013

Vijay's Seshadri's "3 Sections"

Vijay's third collection, and it's well worth waiting for. The book is marvelous, constantly surprising. I enjoyed again the lacerating "Memoir" (which first appeared in The New Yorker) and the three apocalyptic visions of "This Morning" (which I first heard at a PSA reading). "Three Persons" is still a particular favorite. The theme of containing multitudes recurs in different guises throughout the book, culminating in the transformative ending of "Personal Essay," where the faces seen in a trance are themselves and more than themselves. I also love the memoir "Pacific Fishes of Canada" and will be sharing it with a colleague who teaches Moby Dick. The book takes many risks in its language--colloquial, mythic, sentimental, scientific--but rides the waves through the energy of its sentences.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Old Work, New Work, Public Work

Shakespeare's Globe is in New York, and I was lucky to get two tickets to the production of Richard III at Belasco Theatre last Friday. Disconcertingly, Mark Rylance played Richard for laughs, and achieved a new horror. Liam Brennan was brilliant too as Clarence, as was Paul Chahidi as Hastings. The rest of the cast was below par. It was an all-male cast. Of the men playing the women, the strongest was Joseph Timms as Lady Grey. The scene in which Richard tried to persuade Lady Grey to give her daughter to him in marriage was both funny and heartbreaking. Rylance's comic timing, aided by a stutter, turned seemingly innocuous lines into bombshells of laughter.

Yesterday was a beautiful, brisk day for gallery-hopping. GH and I saw the new sculpture by Richard Serra. Inside Out (2013), a single work made out of two curved plates, was tremendous. You think you know Serra's signature monumental work, and will therefore be unmoved by it. But I was, yet again, at the Gagosian gallery on 21st Street. At the other Gagosian on 24th Street, GH loved the patina achieved on the standing slabs of weatherproof steel in Intervals (2013). I was taken by the simple mass of Grief and Reason (for Walter). Reason was, I think, a bigger cast-iron block supporting a smaller block. Grief, next to it, was a smaller block supporting a bigger one.

Sean Scully also had new work, exhibited at Cheim & Read. The additions to his on-going series Wall of Light I found less compelling than the earlier ones. Much stronger was a new series called Landline. According to the press release, Scully has been spending much time in the Bavarian countryside south of Munich, Germany. The winter-time palette of grays and whites has led to a"softening, almost metaphysical approach" to his work. Night and Day, a bigger canvas than anything else by Scully that I had ever seen, was powerfully rhythmic in its eight bands of grays, whites and blacks. My favorite was Landline Pink (2012) with its uncovered streaks of blue and red.

A wonderful example of public art was Sheep Station by Francois-Xavier Lalanne. On display were 25 of the epoxy stone and bronze 'Moutons' by the late French artist. Grass and sheep overran the former Getty filling station at the corner of 10th Avenue and 24th Street. A pastoral dream too good to be true, it was the inaugural exhibition of Getty Station, a new public art program by Michael Shvo, real estate developer and art collector, and Paul Kasmin Gallery. The photo was taken by GH.

Francois-Xavier Lalanne, Sheep Station

Thursday, November 07, 2013

Tara Bergin's "This Is Yarrow"

I can't praise highly enough this first book of poems by Tara Bergin. I'm into my second reading, and it's even more compelling than the first round. Favorites, familiar from PN Review or from New Poetries V, are here--"Looking at Lucy's Painting of the Thames," "Himalayan Balsam for a Soldier," "The Undertaker's Tale of the Notebook," "This Is Yarrow"--but now set in the company of poems that deepen and broaden their resonance.

"Acting School" acknowledges the distance between art and life, but brilliantly concludes that "there is a sufficient amount of physical truth" in the former to approximate, and even vivify, the latter. That physical truth I find confirmed, again and again, in the musicality of the verse. It is not drinking water, but in drinking air, poetry comes close to life.

The contradictions and tensions in married life are conveyed with nervous, even harrowing, energy. I love the poem "At the Garage." I was reading the book in Central Park, and had to share that poem with GH, who does not read much poetry. He liked the poem immensely too. The idea, and image, of smearing with grease everything one touches. Being a hands-on kind of person, he could appreciate fully the comparison of ink in tins that etchers use.

Monday, November 04, 2013

Lines from Batu Ferringhi

QLRS has just published my essay on Goh Poh Seng's book-length poem Lines from Batu Ferringhi. Thanks, Hsien Min and Shu Hoong. (In the same issue also, my answers to Shu Hoong's Proust Questionnaire.) The essay will have done its work if it interests someone to re-issue this vital work of Singapore literature.

Batu Ferringhi is a beach area in the north of Penang Island in Malaysia. In the 16th century, Portuguese traders from India stopped at Batu Ferringhi to replenish their water supplies, and their visits gave the place its name. "Batu Ferringhi" means "Foreigner's Rock". At this liminal space between land and sea, one seeks the foreign in one's familiar self. In the 1970s it was famous as a hippie's hangout, as a place where foreigners came to swim "in the nude at the freshwater pools" (according to Wong Chun Wai's 'Life's a beach in Penang'). Goh was not a hippie. He was a married man with children, a doctor, a man-of-letters and, as the Chairman of the National Theatre Trust Board from 1967 to 1972, an arts administrator. Lines from Batu Ferringhi does not refer to this portfolio of public selves, except for one mention of his family. It was as a private man that Goh escaped to Batu Ferringhi in search of renewal and refreshment.  
 In July 1974, Goh stayed at Batu Ferringhi for seven days and celebrated his 38th birthday on the fourth day of his stay. This life-event thus took place in the exact middle of his stay. The symmetry of this division is reinforced by the organisation of his book. Lines from Batu Ferringhi is divided into 10 sections, each section recording a day. The birthday makes up the four middle sections – the heart of the book – flanked on each side by three day-sections. The graceful organisation is, however, only apparent on hindsight. Reading from the beginning of the book, one encounters each section in the same way as the speaker experiences the succession of days: linear, yet unpredictable, or, as Goh puts it, "unguessable". Read more